By Huyen Hac Helen Tran
The name Tenderfoot may not sound familiar to many, but at first listen of their newly released EP ‘Beginnings’, this Sydney band of three sound as if they’ve been playing for years. The band consists of frontman John Vella, bass player Joel Burton and Anthony Donlon on keys.
‘Beginnings’ pays tribute to classic acts such as Ryan Adams, Bob Dylan and The Band, with an unaffected acoustic indie rock sound reminiscent of the evening commute home after a long day, or the drive to a sunny spot in the woods. Though it has just released, the band have wasted no time, leaving in a month’s time to England to work on their next record.
Like finding a box of old photographs in your garage, this 6-track record is a nostalgic reminder of how affecting performance-based music can be. From earthy guitars, banjos, warm drum beats, bright piano riffs and Vella’s lusty voice, ‘Beginnings’ is a lovely record to welcome in the warmer season.
Vertigo had the opportunity to chat with John Vella from the band the day of the EP release to talk music production, musical influences and the story behind the name.
Tran: How did the band form?
Vella: We met through music all through different stages. We used to play under my name a few years ago. I took a bit of a break and when I came back I wanted to start a band and I wanted those guys to be in it and everyone was keen so we attacked it a bit differently. A bit of different sound, we’re all a bit older and knew what we wanted to do.
Tran: When you started creating Beginnings, did you have an idea of what you wanted the
music to sound like?
Vella: There was definitely a vision behind it. I really like ‘The Band’. They’re a Canadian act
from the seventies. They were Bob Dylan’s band, and they have a DVD called ‘The Last Waltz’ which pretty much has every famous singer/song-writer guest starring on it and it was directed by Martin Scorsese which was sort of the reference point for this record. It’s all performance and song based stuff and we did this record in that way. We played it live together and used old techniques of playing together. There was definitely a vision behind this one. And the next one which we’re working on, we actually get to go to Abbey Road which is great. On that one, the vision is to make sure that an orchestras going to sound right. It’s a new challenge.
Tran: On your website you say quote “Playing festivals with a laptop isn’t our thing. We stand for chemistry, it’s our favourite way to play.” Could you go into depth with that a little more?
Vella: There is a place for laptops, and I love music production. I do it all the time in all
different forms. I believe the heart of good music is in the performance and I’m very lucky that my band has, what I would consider, some really great musicians in it. We had one day in this studio and we were like “These are the six songs, lets go and perform them as well as we can and if we’re lucky we’ll have an EP here.” I did the rest at my home studio with extra vocal layers and stuff and it worked out. Our drummer was actually really sick on the day and he just stepped up and he played so well.
Tran: That ties into the whole performance based thing, you don’t want to cut into the music with things that aren’t solely based on your ability to play.
Vella: I guess what I’ll add to that is that with the live shows, every time it is a bit different and I think that’s amazing. You can extend sections; you can cut the song short. That’s the sort of thing makes a difference. When we did the record, we didn’t really know how it was going to turn out. If you go in there with everything all tracked up that takes away an element. Creativity is undefined, and I think that’s fascinating concept, and really powerful. If you don’t know what you’re going to do, often I find it comes out better than if you thought about it too much. That’s something we try to keep in the mix.
Tran: Are the lyrics inspired by your personal experiences or do you workshop them with
Vella: The lyrics are pretty much just me. If someone hates something they’ll shout it out, but
that doesn’t happen too often luckily for me. It’s basically all personal stories except for ‘Crazy Suzie.’ What I did in that one was I used characters as a metaphor for my emotions and I thought that that was a pretty cool thing. Just a different approach. The content’s real but the story is basically designed to tell an emotion.
Tran: You’ve had heaps of experience recording and composing music for a very long time
you’ve created soundtracks for ads for some bigger named companies. Do you find that it would ever stunt your creativity or your ability to create more personal pieces?
Vella: It has definitely helped. I went to UNSW and I studied Industrial Design. It’s basically
product design and we got briefs every week and we had to come up with a solution; design a product based on a need or something. I think it taught me a lot, not about song craft, but just how to craft something that is needed. In terms of the ad work, that was definitely easier for me understand clients and what they want. So, doing those pushed me creatively because I had to create things that I wouldn’t just create by myself. So I had to go and create something that sounds like a Thomas Newman score and he did like ‘Shawshank Redemption’ and stuff like that. I love that stuff, but I don’t generally sit down and try and write stuff that sounds like that. You come out of doing an ad like that and you’ve got a whole bag of tricks that you didn’t have before because you’ve had to push your boundaries. When I came back with the original stuff with Tenderfoot I guess my thought process was much broader.
Tran: Lastly, where did the name Tenderfoot came from?
Vella: It’s a nickname my house mate gave me when we were playing darts. I was Johnny Tenderfoot. When we started up this project again, I looked up what it meant because I thought it was such a cool word and it means to be a ‘junior boy scout’ basically. A practical novice, so say you’re out there building fences and you’re not very good at it but you’re doing it. You’re still building fences and you’ll get better. I just think that’s a really cool word and I really like the connotation that it’s really about just wanting to get better. That’s what I took from it and the guys seemed to like the name so we’re happy. I’ve had many terrible band names in the past but I feel like this is a good one so we went with it.
Listen to the EP’s debut single ‘The Balcony Tale’ below.
You can listen to ‘Beginnings’ now on Spotify or follow the band on facebook at @tenderfootsydney.