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17 April 2024  •  Arts & Lifestyle

Needle on the Haystack: An Interview with Scarecrow People

Whether it’s the intertwining melodies and layers of harmonies or Andy Partridge’s hyper-literate lyrics, the band’s oeuvre is a delicious feast that gives you something new to pick apart no matter how many times you’ve listened to it.

By Mia Rankin (they/she)
Needle on the Haystack: An Interview with Scarecrow People

Tucked away in some corner of Alexandria, among the desolate suburbia and warehouses, is a small industrial estate known as Perry Park. At first glance, there’s not much besides drab grey buildings and a sprawling parking lot. But, look behind Door 7 and you will find Stage Door Productions, a rehearsal studio that has been hosting musicians since 1982.

Tonight, its current occupants are Scarecrow People, Australia’s premier XTC cover band. When I arrive an hour before rehearsals are set to start, the only members present so far are Jess Ciampa (drums, vocals, handing out exotic percussion devices to other band members when necessary) and Les Rankin (too many guitar parts to name). When Les sees me, he greets me with a cry of “Miss Mia!” and a hug. 

Les and I have been in touch before, discussing my appearance on an XTC fan podcast where I talked listeners’ ears off about XTC B-sides. Before that, I’d seen him onstage playing guitars for Scarecrow People every year since 2017. A man with a self-professed tendency to start bands dedicated to artists he loves, Les is a warm and inviting presence in the studio, armed with an arsenal of guitars and pedals. He’s also a member of Petulant Frenzy, a Frank Zappa tribute group currently in limbo. To those familiar with the complexity of these artists’ catalogues, they might seem like difficult picks to cover.

“I certainly didn’t think, “XTC, that’ll go well,” says Les, “And Zappa, it’s ridiculous…it’s challenging, but the satisfaction of it [all] turning out well is a big thing.”

For the uninitiated, XTC was an English rock band formed in Swindon during the 1970s. They first gained popularity with the rise of post-punk and new wave in Britain, but only ever achieved sporadic commercial success with songs like ‘Making Plans For Nigel’, ‘Dear God’, and ‘Senses Working Overtime’. Their sound has morphed from angular guitar rock to acoustic pieces to elaborately arranged orchestral works, depending on which era you stumble across. 

“The scope of the music is so huge. They started in one place and ended in an entirely different place, and that journey is a long journey,” explains Matt Roberts (vocals, occasional keyboard noodling, graphics and poster design). “None of their songs sound the same. They actually move as a band from album to album to album and they grow.”

XTC’s music can be heard in films such as The Perks of Being A Wallflower and Hot Fuzz, referenced in books like Eleanor and Park, and even in interactive features like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Their 1986 masterpiece Skylarking has had a huge influence on American indie rock group Wallows. Yet, XTC still isn’t a household name, largely found through word-of-mouth and a devoted cult following. It makes sense then that to have an XTC cover band is a rare thing. To have an XTC cover band based in Sydney is a miracle.

“It all started with a Facebook post that somebody put up about the Beach Boys,” says Les. “I just jumped in being a smartass, saying, ‘Look, if I wanted to listen to exotic vocal harmonies I’d rather listen to ‘River of Orchids’ (from 1999’s Apple Venus Volume 1) or something like that.”

As Facebook Beach Boys fans tried to give Les pointers, three people recognised Les’ XTC fandom. Jess, John Encarnacao (guitars, vocals, setlists) and Rob Child (phenomenal bass) all reacted to his comment, and it got Les thinking.

“I’d gone, hang on – we’re a drummer, two guitarists and a bass player! We should book a studio and, just for fun, go and make a racket. My thought was, let’s just see what happens.”

“Having done the Zappa thing – that to me was impossible music – I realised that it is actually feasible [to play music like that]. It was just the challenge of seeing if we could approximate the late period stuff.”

The “late period stuff” in question is anything post-1982, really – XTC stopped touring that year due to frontman Andy Partridge’s worsening stage fright, and turned their sights towards becoming masters of the studio. Their subsequent output was nothing short of elaborate, featuring strings, horns, and synthesisers. In short, they hadn’t been worried about replicating these sounds on stage.

But for Scarecrow People, all ridiculously talented musicians in their own right, working out the songs is a mere matter of listening and doing their homework.

“I’ve got a really good ear, John’s got a really really good ear and he can hear details that I can’t,” says Les. “We typically get together pretty early in the piece and we just sit down and listen and go, ‘What’s he [playing] in the right channel?’”

“You’ve got stuff like Black Sea (XTC’s 1980 album) where it is two guitars and we try and work out roughly what they’re doing because it’s so marvellous,” continues John. “But then you’ve got stuff like Oranges & Lemons (XTC’s 1989 album) where it’s layered up so high, and Les and I have to find the coordinates between two guitars to best approximate.”

“I write [drum] charts,” says Jess. “I’m a reader, so I’ve got charts for 80 percent of it.” 

“And a metronome!” groans Les. 

However, it’s also a testament to the complexity of XTC’s work that their music, composed at most by three or four people, takes seven people to replicate onstage. One of the seven, Kendal “Doily” Cuneo (trumpet, keys, percussion, reader of dots, involuntary silliness) is unfortunately absent from tonight’s rehearsals. Her bandmates don’t hesitate to let me know how much her presence is missed.

“[She] is very special in the group because [her] trumpet is great, but she’s a really good percussionist as well,” says John. “We’re kind of impoverished by not having [her] today. That’s kind of all the magic sauce on it.”

Despite Les and Jess’ assertions that they don’t strive for pinpoint accuracy when translating XTC’s songs to the stage, I watch them agonise with Ben Sherwood (vocals, advocate for XTC fans in Darwin) over where the harmonies are supposed to go as they do a run through of ‘Another Satellite’.

“I’m not a fascist about what’s playing, but those notes are important. And I’m a stickler for the grooves,” says Jess, ever the model drummer. “[But] I’m all for making things our own. It’s for fun, for shits and giggles.”

Like most XTC fans, it’s the sheer passion and unadulterated love for the music that underpins everything Scarecrow People do. From the first moment they heard XTC, blasting on the radio or through a schoolmate’s recommendation, it transformed their lives. Whether it’s the intertwining melodies and layers of harmonies or Andy Partridge’s hyper-literate lyrics, the band’s oeuvre is a delicious feast that gives you something new to pick apart no matter how many times you’ve listened to it.

“It’s the most complex pop music I’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard an artist sing melodies like that, with words that good,” says Ben, who’s getting the Uffington Horse (as pictured on the cover of 1982’s English Settlement) on his wedding ring later this year.

“I think Andy Partridge has a unique brain, and he makes harmonies and writes songs that no other human could write,” explains John. “So [when you’re] listening to him and playing his music, you get to live in that brain a little bit, which is a privilege to do.”

You can catch Scarecrow People on Friday, April 19th at the Camelot Lounge in Marrickville.


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