Isolation for the Nation
Lewis Coleman’s debut album Method of Places is circular and inverted, a deep dive into one man’s life and memories, splurged across nine patchwork soundscapes. Going into lockdown and being shut off from the greater world wasn’t such a big deal for Coleman, having spent most of his life within the same three kilometers.
“I haven’t really ventured very far,” he shrugs from his bedroom via our 2020 staple Zoom call. “I don’t have a dissatisfaction with what’s going on, I guess, so that’s probably just kept me here.”
Born and raised in Melbourne, Coleman found himself obsessed with music from an early age, taking trips to his grandparents’ house where he was stationed in front of various music VHS tapes for entertainment. “One was an early 90s PBS American documentary by Ken Burns on wartime music and then another one was The Beatles Anthology that my grandparents had taped,” he recalls. “I got really familiar with that when I was like, three.”
Listening to Coleman’s music with its warped, malleable synths and syncopated, hollow beats, you can almost feel his early exposure to such a weird juxtaposition of influence. From the psychedelica of Liverpool’s famous to the absurdity and resilience of “The Ants Go Marching One By One”, his early earworms are resurrected with insular notoriety.
His nan would make him cut out guitars and mic stands to perform with, and every year at Christmas his uncles would gather and play songs together into the night, Coleman staying up to watch, fascinated. “My parents were musical but they’ve never played music as a profession,” he explains, they were just a music-loving family.
Coleman’s first instrument was the piano, aged five. ”I was pretending to play guitar since I was three but I never actually started playing it properly until late primary school when I was like, eleven or twelve,” he laughs. He also studied cello at school but found the structure of musical academica too disciplined. “I would kind of progress myself at a pretty slow rate as far as an individual performance aspect goes. Maybe I was lazy in regards to practice, but I always loved music.” he says.
Coleman describes himself as a jack of all trades, what he lacks in technical proficiency or musical theory, he makes up for with a natural ear and the ability to self-learn. “I think I had an OK ear from early on and I could listen to songs and figure out the chords and just play along with them by ear,” he says. He began to download and print off guitar tabs, laminating them and presenting them at Christmas as an alternative songbook to the usual traditions.
At the age of thirteen he started to explore the world of production, recording himself, teaching himself how to use different software and applications. “I got a microphone and an interface and I started recording stuff and I was excited to do that,” he explains. “I don’t know whether I wrote heaps of music in the first four years of having the ability to do it, but I got a bit too distracted by the tech of it. Like, oh there’s a new plugin and I can make my guitar sound like this now. I was always wanting to update my things so I had different sounds and stuff that I could play with. I wasn’t strictly focussing on, why don’t I just write some stuff as well?”
Three years later and he joined his first band, a ten-piece funk and soul group named The Cactus Channel. “I was just interested in music and listened to heaps of music and was just playing by myself. I kind of forced myself, I was like can I please be in this band? I need something to do,” he laughs.
The Cactus Channel was not only his first experience of writing with other people, experiencing the collaboration and compromise that comes with being in a band, but also his first experience of playing live. “We were all friends that went to the same school and so that really opened me into the Melbourne music scene and the world around it,” he smiles. “We were exposed to it at quite a young age. We recorded an album when I was in year twelve, so I would have been eighteen. So the first gigs I would have been sixteen, playing in this band. And it’s kind of nice because there’s ten of us there’s less pressure on each individual person and they’ve just got a little part and they play it in there and it sits in and if you stuff up or if you forget a little bit, there’s nine other people that are playing way too much anyway, we were so excited and energetic.”
Whilst they never ventured outside of Australia, The Cactus Channel picked up notoriety locally as well as support from national media. Above all it afforded Coleman a break into the industry and a little perspective on the parameters of success. “We put our first album out when we were eighteen and then I think because we were young and there wasn’t really anyone else that we knew of in Melbourne that was playing that music at such a young age, I reckon we got quite a bit of attention through that,” he reasons. “And Triple J, we were in their Unearthed finals and we got to play the festival Harvest as finalists and then we played a few other festivals at Falls in Melbourne and we’ve put four albums out. We were selling out shows in Melbourne to medium rooms and I was like twenty at that point. I do look back on that period, the first three or four years of that band, and if I was achieving the notoriety of that band by myself, at the age I’m at now, I’d be pretty stoked. But at the time it was a bit of a blur.”
Even while Coleman was playing and writing with his band, his interest in recording never waned. Instead he partnered with The Cactus Channel’s bass player to record themselves and other bands, trying to learn from old motown, funk and soul records and experimenting with recording to tape.
He went on to study Interactive Composition at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, learning how to compose for any kind of media that interacts with music from film to TV to dance. During his final year something clicked and he began to write his own songs. “I was making all this weird music to fit these briefs and I was kinda happy but wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to make this music,” he says. “So in the last year I was like, I’m gonna try and write some songs as my portfolio rather than these strange pieces that I was making and that kind of birthed some of these songs.”
Those songs now form the basis of Coleman’s upcoming debut album, Method of Places. Each track has its own history, a passage of additions, improvements, modifications and alterations. “I had been working on the same songs for a number of years, like a 2014 version and a 2015 version, and then I’d go and add an extra bit. So because I was my own boss with those tracks it’s kind of like I could always do something better to them, there weren’t any deadlines. Some of them sat there for a long time,” laughs Coleman
The turning point came when The Cactus Channel played Changes, a music conference in Melbourne. Armed with a delegates badge, Coleman made use of the industry speed meetings to source advice and feedback on his solo work. One of the pros he sat down with was Marihuzka Cornelius, the A&R director at the label Ivy League. He left with a record deal. “I had this EP together, that became the album, that I was shopping around to labels and I was gonna release independently. But I was like, let’s go and give this a go,” he smiles. “You got to sit down with someone for ten minutes and you could play them a song and they would give you feedback directly on it. So I did that and played Marihuska the first single off this record and she was really into it and then it was just like, would you like to get a coffee the next day? And from there I was just signed because they were keen and I was interested.”
One play of Method of Places and it’s easy to see why Ivy League acted so fast. The record itself is timeless, a distant collection of songs that span genres, from blissful folktronica to exploding synth-pop to groove-heavy indie rock, the whole record centred around Coleman’s laconic drawl. The lyrics cast shadows across the melodies, retrospective, imagery-laden and so personal you can feel the moments of Coleman’s past brush on your shoulder. On “Good Side” he’s finding his feet in adolescence, on “Can’t Face It” he’s confined in his own haunting memories. There’s hints of Ariel Pink’s leftfield trippiness, Tame Impala’s vibed out post-rock and Lemon Jelly’s kitschy soundscapes.
The dense layers of sounds and samples that run through each track project Coleman back to different stages in his life. The album was recorded across five years in five different bedrooms, all within the small radius in Melbourne, of course. “I moved out five years ago and almost every house, I’ve been there for about a year until the lease is up or it’s time to move.” he laughs. “It’s a real lived-in scenario, for sure. It probably goes back to the fact I’ve been living in the same 3k radius for my whole life as well. Just very insular, particularly at the moment when we’re in lockdown as well, living in this pretty closed-in world.”
The decision to name the record Method of Places is a recent one, a summation of the years which went into not only the subject matter but also the recording process. The album press release calls it, “A Memory Palace, where all the songs are different rooms, co-existing under the album’s roof.” So does this mean Coleman is a big Sherlock Holmes fan?
“I wouldn’t say that I am, but I’ve liked watching Sherlock,” he laughs. Sherlock’s memory palace, in the BBC adaptation, sees him running through rooms searching for fragments of his past in order to piece together a plot-changing revelation. In my head I can see Coleman, running through his own rooms of the past, reliving lost loves, drunken nights and the different bedroom ceilings of five Melbourne flat shares. “I didn’t have a title for it until this year. It’s a collection of songs over four years and there’s not one thread through it all,” he explains. “Like, if I’d written the album in one year I’d maybe have thought about what it is, and so I was just trying to figure out what tied stuff together. A lot of these songs have a history for me in them and different sounds are like different times.”
And now Coleman, like the rest of us, is living in a closed-in world. However, he’s been making the most of his free time, creating tutorials online for those who want to delve into the world of songwriting or live streaming. “I don’t really think about what skills I have,” he shrugs. “I feel like everyone can do this, and then sometimes someone goes, woah, how did you do that? I’ve just never been that confident that I have the knowledge of something and for a few of these I was like, maybe people will find this interesting, people will get something out of it.”
Coleman recently played the well-curated Isol-Aid festival series, but aside from that his live performances this year have been few and far between. A tough break when you’ve got a debut album to promote, but it’s a situation many new artists are finding themselves in. However, for Coleman he’s missing gigs as much as a punter, as a performer. “I haven’t played a single gig all year with a band. And the home gig thing, I’ve been trying to make it something that’s enjoyable to listen to and it’s a good experience and sounds good,” he explains. “I’ve got no idea what I think about the future. I would like to play just one more show, maybe, just give me one! I just want to see one more show, really. I really like playing shows but I’m really missing seeing gigs. Playing gigs I do like, but they’re always tied in with stress of loss of money and nerves and not eating dinner because you have to do soundcheck and you’re too flustered, but seeing a gig would be great.”
Australian artists are geographically removed from the rest of the Western music industry, but thanks to a strong export scheme in Sounds Australia we tend to see more of them at showcase festivals like SXSW and The Great Escape. But of course, not this year. For a homebody like Coleman, does he ever think about spreading his wings and relocating to a continent that lends itself to touring? “I feel super lucky, but also people in Melbourne are often saying you should try and go overseas because Australia’s only so big, you can only do so much in Australia. Like, I haven’t reached that point where I’m too big for Australia but people in Melbourne are like, you should really consider going to these other cities, because I guess there is a spotlight and a focus on Australian music just from the quality perspective, I think people are really listening to us, particularly in Melbourne. I’ve not really spent much time overseas, maybe people aren’t listening to us and we’re just saying that.
“I’ve thought about it but it’s never been a real reality, definitely more in the last couple of years. I’d have to have a reason. There’d have to be some purpose I could focus on for a bit. I like going places and I’ve gone overseas a couple of times, but I haven’t got this travel bug of I must go everywhere and see the world. I’ve just never felt this need to move around. Maybe there are other elements in there, like I feel it’s a privilege to do that anyway and not everyone has those thoughts about what country do I wanna go live in? I should just live within my means, in my city, and if I’m happy I’m happy, you know? But there’s definitely an interest, particularly if there’s music benefits. If people want me to go overseas then I’ll do it, I’ll give it a go. I would like to go to the UK, I’ve never been and I would like to if I’m honest."
With travel and live music off the table it’s nothing more than a rhetorical question, a dream to turn over. Instead Coleman has been creating tripped out videos to accompany his singles, drawing on the narratives of a distorted and dated solo reality. “I did a video for the song “Going Your Way” at the start of lockdown which is the one that’s not shot on Super 8. That was just at the start of lockdown happening so you could have a few people but it was getting a bit hectic,” he says. “There was a little break in the lockdown period in April or May and we had this idea that for the rest of the singles, for there to be a video for each of them, and it was like, four videos, that’s quite a bit.
"So it was like, how do we do four videos? It was definitely an efficient thing because the cover for the album and all the photos to accompany the album were all shot in the same house that the video was shot in, my friend Jack who was shooting on Super 8 and then my friend Izzy who was taking photos, they were essentially helping each other out. Izzy would just go around this empty house we were able to use in Ballarat in Australia and would just be like, Lewis, stand there for a bit and Jack would help Izzy with the lighting for the photoshoot and he would take a little bit of video footage. But I thought it was a good idea because it kind of tied in the record and all the album stuff and all the imagery and video stuff in this one palace and it was just after I’d come up with the idea I was gonna call the album Method of Places, so it kind of made sense. So that was the idea. One idea needs to cover everything here.”
Despite the realities it faces, Method of Places couldn’t feel more perfect for a year of solitary reflection. And it’s kept Coleman content during the darkest months. “It’s kept me busy. I’ve not been bored in the lockdown, I’ve gone a little bit crazy but really it’s just been good to have something to work through. Normally you’ve lived a life in the week prior, so you can converse with people and not just go blank, which I just do all the time now when someone comes to the front door. It’s like, I really want to talk to you but I’ve got nothing. I’m glad this album’s seen it through and glad to have it at the end of the tunnel of the year when it comes out.”
A light at the end of the tunnel, an open door, the hope of a vaccine or an album to sink into quietly, alone. Whatever gets you through.