Thanks so much to Bart for the lovely interview! Don’t think Bart needs an introduction as he has been in bands like The Cat’s Miaow, The Shapiros, Pencil Tin or even Girl of the World. Nowadays he has been releasing under Bart & Friends, and later this month, well, in a couple of days, we’ll be releasing a 7-song mini-CD part of the Cloudberry Classics series. It’s hard to cover everything Bart has done, so this time we focused on Pencil Tin, but here’s hoping for more interviews later this year!
++ Hello Bart! How are you doing? How is Melbourne’s summer treating you?
Its been kinda wet. As in floods. But for the most part summer has found me working in the garden. Not very rock n roll but it’s the life I lead these days.
++ For those who don’t know, we are releasing a new little CD this month under the Bart & Friends name. What can people expect from it?
It’s sort of like a concentrated or distilled version Bart & friends. Its 7 songs in a bit over 8 minutes, all from the 90’s, all with me singing lead vocals. All were on the long list of potential inclusions to my live sets last year and some even made it all the way.
++ On one interview you said that The Shapiros, Pencil Tin, and Bart & Friends, are all the same thing. In the end they are you plus some good friends collaborating. And I thought, it would be cool to learn more from some of these “obscure” projects of yours, I say obscure because everyone associates you with The Cat’s Miaow as soon as they read your name. How important and how satisfying are these “side-projects” to you?
I guess more accurately I should have said what I do in each of those bands is the same and its what the other members bring that sets each band apart. The thing with all those bands and also the Cat’s miaow is that they each include another really talented song writer which stops me from getting too complacent and inspires me to try and lift my game. They were all pretty well of equal importance to me. It was never a case of “ooh, this song is pretty good, I better save it for the Cat’s miaow”. There’s this quite manic period from 93 to 95 where I probably wrote 90% of my back catalogue spread across the Cat’s miaow, Pencil tin and the Shapiros.
Pretty much all the bands ran to a natural conclusion with no unfinished business with the exception of the Shapiros. I think if the Shapiros had of continued for more than 6 weeks it possibly would have become the band I’m best known for. There was still a lot of untapped potential in that band, it would have been interesting to see what we could’ve achieved over 2 years.
I don’t mind being “Bart from the Cat’s miaow”. I’m flattered that the band is remembered at all. I’m quite surprised how the band is increasingly being referenced, with lyrics being used as titles of blog posts or even blogs themselves, and used as a point of reference in reviews. It’s quite gratifying to have become a small part of the lexicon of indie pop.
++ So how did Pencil Tin came about? What triggered you three to start recording together?
Rob was playing bass in the Sugargliders and I knew he wrote songs so I nagged him into forming a band with me as outlet primarily for his songs. I think you need to put this in the context that the Cat’s miaow was still only releasing cassettes at this stage and the Sugargliders were on Sarah, so there wasn’t any real advantage for him to play with me.
++ Why the name Pencil Tin?
I liked the way at school everyone customized there pencil tins with stickers and thought it made a good band name… sorry.
++ Your first release was the Poignant 7″ on the Quiddity label. You had already released with them a Cat’s Miaow 7″. And it seems you had a good relationship with them. I believe I bought lots of Library releases through them when they were Drive-In. But how did your relationship with them start? Did you ever meet personally?
This may not be correct as it’s such a long time ago, but I think Mike may have got in touch with us to buy a Sugargliders tribute cassette we had put together for their last show. Or possibly thru Dave Harris, we met a lot of people thru him. We were the first band on the label so he must have contacted us rather than us sending a demo? I may have been in DC at the time so the initial contact could have been with Andrew which is why I’m so vague about it. I never did get to Grand Rapids but I’m sure Andrew did a couple of times. It’s not too big a claim to say without Mike I’m pretty sure no-one would have heard of the Cat’s miaow and definitely Library records would never have happened.
++ So yeah, perhaps Poignant is the most known Pencil Tin song. So, what is the story behind it?
That’s one of Rob’s songs so I can’t say with any certainty but I always thought it was about him and Bianca. I do know that I wanted to give recording in a studio a try after a couple of years of home recording. As it turned out I hated the whole process but I loved the results. I’ve only done home recording ever since.
++ And it also has a video, was that Embassy Cafeteria your favourite place to hang out?
That was the only time I ever went there. It was near where Rob and Bianca lived. I’d forgotten we’d even done it until I stumbled upon it on youtube a couple of months ago. It was fun to make as I just had sit and eat a donut which was about the full range of my acting capabilities. I generally hate posing for photos but I can actually watch this without cringing. I really wish I still had that shirt.
++ How did the creative process work for you three by the way? Who did what?
It was either Rob or myself writing the songs, we’d bring finished songs to the band and whoever wrote it, sang and played guitar and the other played bass. Bianca didn’t get much of look in she was so quiet. Initially it was just me and Rob, it took us ages to find a drummer, by which time we’d already written a dozen songs. Early on Rob and I would rehearse once a week and each practice we’d each bring a new song.
++ That makes me wonder, how did you all get to know each other?
There was a circle of friends centered around Dave Harris (Munch videos, he made that Pencil tin video) which included amongst others, Josh (Sugargliders) Rob (Sugargliders, Earthmen) Andrew (Cat’s miaow) Ian (Super falling star) and myself. There were loads of other people as well, it wasn’t like an exclusive club for members of indie pop bands only. There were probably more dentists than anything.
++ And did you ever play any live shows with Pencil Tin?
No, we were meant to play at a party at Dave’s but the others got cold feet, so the Cat’s maiow stepped in and made a rare live appearance (third and last, there’s a distinct lack of ambition becoming evident here) as a 3 piece. You can hear it as the live songs at the end of Songs for girls to sing.
++ Going back to that 7″, it says on the back cover “all songs by Pencil Tin except the bits we pinched from The Smiths”. What are those bits? Or is it just a joke? 🙂
No, it’s true. The last few lines of In dreams.
“And I want the one I cant have, and it’s driving me mad, it’s written all over my face”
I want the one I can’t have – Meat is murder
++ Next release was the “A Gentle Hand to Guide You Along” album on Bus Stop. How did you end up signing with them? And how do you feel about the album 15 or so years after, do you think it has aged well?
See, I always think of them in the order they were recorded rather than released. This was recorded in June 1994, a year before Poignant was recorded and probably came out 2 years later.
By early 1994 Rob and I had about 12 songs written and as both of us were abut to embark on separate and hopefully lengthy overseas adventures (mine turned into the Shapiros) I thought it best if we recorded them for posterity. At this stage we hadn’t played with Bianca, so she heard the songs for the first time the afternoon we recorded them at a rehearsal studio down at the docks in an old warehouse. They were recorded really quickly with a near enough is good enough approach to the playing. I don’t think we imagined them ever getting beyond a cassette release. We must have sent a copy of to Bus stop along with the Cat’s miaow’s From my window as Brian offered to release both on CD. Unfortunately between then and the CDs being released the label ran out of steam and they sat in limbo for ages before finally coming out a few years later and I don’t think they got much distribution and probably no promotion. Which was frustrating at the time but having run my own label I know what it’s like so I don’t hold a grudge (which is odd, cause I usually do?)
I don’t think many people have heard this CD, Brian gave me big wad of promo copies a few years later which I was giving away to people who bought the Cat’s miaow re-issues just so people would hear it.
How does it hold up 15 years later? I think it’s got some really good songs on it but its let down by the playing and singing which is pretty rough around the edges. There’s only so much you can pass off as “naive charm”.
Even now I still find it hard to believe we were on Bus stop. I feel quite privileged to have been on the same label as 2 of my favouirite bands from that era, Veronica Lake and Rocketship.
++ Favourite song on the album?
The first one, Friday. One of Rob’s, it’s got a good groove to it.
++ You mostly recorded in 4 track right? What do you like about it? What are the advantages you think?
I like the control. You can do it inhouse (ie get Andrew to do it) and not have to try and convince someone else about what you’re trying to achieve. My limited experience with working with engineers in studios is that it’s really hard to translate your ideas thru someone outside of the band who doesn’t know what your frame of reference is.
++ And last release was a split, on your own Library Records along with another project of yours, The Shapiros. I’m kind of curious of those drawings you included in the sleeve and the record labels. Where did you get them? Oh! and why make a split of it, instead of just calling it Bart & Friends?
Good question. The drawings I pinched from a book of fashion illustration, possibly on the history of Vogue or something. I never had a great deal of respect for copyright. Seeing as I only wrote one of the Pencil tin songs and Pam wrote the lyrics to the Shapiros songs, to try and claim them all as mine is a bit of a stretch. I guess the difference between the other bands and Bart & friends is the others have some semblance of democracy while Bart & friends is more of a benevolent dictatorship.
++ And then what happened? Why no more releases? Are there still any unreleased Pencil Tin recordings?
It ended because Rob and Bianca had begun writing songs together and had formed their own band Paparazzi and wanted to focus their energy on that. What they were coming up with was infinitely better than Pencil tin. Sort of a Saint Etienne / Boo Radleys hybrid, Bianca it turned out was an amazing guitarist. You get glimpses of it on Rob’s solo album and they recorded lots of demos but never got it together to have anything released unfortunately.
I rehearsed with them once playing bass with the purpose of putting together a live incarnation but they couldn’t find a suitable drummer so it never really happened.
No unreleased Pencil tin songs I’m afraid, the cupboard is bare.
++ Do you still see Rob and Bianca often?
No, unfortunately. Rob moved to London and then I moved to the country and we’ve lost contact along the way.
++ Last time, and first time, I saw you was in Berlin. How did you like that city? And the crowd? You were monopolized by our dear friend Christos most of the time though!!
I loved Berlin, despite nearly getting run over by bicyclists twice. It’s somewhere I’d definitely like to visit again. The crowd was amazing, there were some down the front singing louder than I was. I’d never experienced anything like that before. It was quite touching, nearly brought a tear to an old man’s eye. Christos probably didn’t talk to me for more than half an hour which was barely any time at all. It’s not everyday I meet a fan as thoroughly charming as he is and it did my ego no end of good. I really should have talked to him more about the Sunny street tho, they’re easily my favourite band of the past 12 months.
++ Thanks Bart, and so looking forward to the release date, anything else you’d like to add? Any future projects coming up? I heard a Bart & Friends album is around the corner?
There is a CD of new songs tentatively scheduled for around April, we just need to do some minor finishing touches and mix it. Scott from the Summer cats sings on quite a few of the songs I’ll possibly also play live with the full line up around that time as well for the first time which I’m really looking forward to. Me playing live solo is a bit of dancing bear act, it has some novelty value but in the end bears can’t dance and I can’t sing and play at the same time.
Pencil Tin – Poignant