They’ve been putting out singles and EPs for half a decade now, garnering buzz, acclaim and fans in psych-rock circles around the globe — but now, on September 30, the London-based band Tempesst is finally releasing their debut full-length record.
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Entitled Must Be A Dream and distributed by the band’s own label, Pony Recordings, this record showcases Tempesst’s intentional and pragmatic approach to music-making. That is to say, Tempesst is the kind of band where raw musicality takes hold and instills every song with a unique sense of chemistry. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that Tempesst consists of two brothers — Toma and Andy Banjanin — and a crew of their oldest and best friends, Kane Reynolds, Blake Mispieka and Eric Weber.
First forming in their native Australia (save for Weber, who is Swiss-American), the band relocated to London, where they recently set up their own recording studio. The additional liberty and flexibility allowed by controlling their own recording space proved to be the secret ingredient for Must Be A Dream, as it gave the band more time to explore their songs and really determine what to emphasize. As a result, the shapes and colors of the record are clear and impactful; each song crafts a world unto itself. For example, a track like “High on My Own” marries a late-60s Crosby, Stills, and Nash kind of vibe with an undeniably modern point-of-view and insightful social commentary. Other tracks, like “Walk on the Water” and “Age of the Bored,” serve as excellent vehicles for the soaring melodies and bombastic production that Tempesst has perfected.
A few weeks ago, American Songwriter caught up with Weber and the older Banjanin brother, Toma, to discuss this record and the journey the band went on to make it. Talented songwriters and accomplished producers, Weber and Banjanin opened up about the nitty-gritty of their process, explaining several of the various angles one can take in approach to songwriting. Talking about everything from the torture of lyric writing to the demo-production process to how they incorporate their various influences into their sound, our conversation proved to not only be an invaluable insight onto the workflow of Tempesst, but onto the art of songcraft itself.
Y’all have been putting out music since 2015, but Must Be A Dream is your first full-length record — when did you start working on it?
Toma Banjanin: We started working on it when we returned from SXSW last year. I wouldn’t say that there was a particular, intentional theme that we actually set out to achieve from the get-go. We just built our own recording studio in East London — like a proper recording studio decked out with all of our stuff — so, the process looked more like us coming in every day, mucking around, putting songs together and seeing what we were able to make.
Eric Weber: Yeah, we’ve put out two EPs over the past couple of years, so the natural progression from that was to put out an album.
TB: Yeah, our main focus when we got back from SXSW was to start working on the record and start writing.
How did putting together your own recording space change your creative process? Did you feel more uninhibited?
TB: Yes, absolutely. Any band that’s booked time in a studio is familiar with the sense of urgency that kicks in when you only have a few days to get everything done. You’re limited in that regard. But, sometimes you have to explore every avenue in order to know that you picked the right one. I guess some would argue that having those limitations actually makes the creative process more streamlined. But, for us, we really wanted to challenge ourselves and put together something that we’re really proud of. We wanted it to sound like a progression for ourselves. We felt that we needed to have the creative flexibility that having your own studio provides.
How do you feel that your long-standing relationships and interpersonal chemistry influence your artistry as a whole?
TB: I think that we have a pretty unique situation, but I can’t compare it to anyone else’s since this is all I’ve known. But, I hear stories about other groups coming together and not really having the depth of relationship there. It’s a lot easier when you do have a really strong relationship. That allows folks to be comfortable, honest and contribute as much as they’d like to. Obviously, there is always a challenge there in trying to make sure that you don’t compromise the original writer’s vision of the song, but you’re also respecting that the group creates stuff that we’re all interested in as a unit. I guess the real benefit of us knowing each other for so long is that everyone feels that they can pipe up and say what they want to say. That alleviates any underlying tension that people who maybe don’t have as close of relationships miss out on.
EW: Yeah, I’d say that outside of being bandmates we’re all like family — and obviously, Toma and Andy are actual brothers. That’s something that’s been going on since before we were a band and it’s something that’ll carry on for the rest of our lives, hopefully. It definitely makes the whole process seem like an extension of ourselves and our relationships with each other. I feel like Tempesst is not the product of any one individual — even though people have their moments where they shine through — it’s more of an extension of the creative expression of our “family.”
Y’all started playing music together in church band — how did that influence the band’s development as y’all stepping into secular music?
TB: That was when we teenagers, so it wasn’t all of us — Eric is American and we met him here in London. But, that was Kane, my brother Andy and I. For the three of us, having exposure to more experienced musicians can help you learn more about your instrument and learn more about playing in a group in general. The one really good thing that came out of it is that when you play an instrument in a band as a teenager a couple of times every week, then you pick up on a lot of things without necessarily having to stride to learn them. I can’t really contrast my experience with anyone else’s, but for me, the positive experience was definitely a practical one. All of those musicians taught us how to play in a band, really. Obviously, that whole experience also had many other facets to it. Many of them were positive, some were not so positive. The positive side was totally about that exposure and regularity.
You explore some themes from that upbringing on this record. One song in particular — “High On My Own” — stood out to me because of the juxtaposition it paints.
TB: “High on My Own” was actually the oldest demo that we went back to on this record. Kane and I initially started working on it around two years before we went back and revisited it. It was a bit more of an outlier as we were first putting together the tracklisting. But, as we came closer and closer to finishing the track, it became evident that it was going to be an important song on the record. When we came to actually put the music together, we laid down all the layers of the song without having written any lyrics.
EW: Yeah, I think we actually totally changed the chorus.
TB: That’s right! It was the first demo we recorded and the very last song that I put vocals on. So, it really bookended the record-making process. When I wrote the song, I think that I was trying to explore the dynamic you have when you find yourself in the feedback loop of partying all the time, kinda trying to be the last person standing. This is exploring the reasons why anyone would actually do that — what are they trying to avoid? I don’t want to get too deep with it, but it’s about questioning that fast-paced social life that you can find yourself getting caught up in. Years can go by and you feel lost in the mess of it all. I wanted to express that it’s hard to find my footing and my identity, even as a man in his early 30s. When you strip away all of the activities that you fill your life with and you ask yourself these kinds of questions, then you start to see what’s underneath it all. So, I wanted to explore that for myself. It’s also cool that you can be in your early 30s and still try to piece together all of these facets of your own identity. Maybe that’s something that we continue to work at well into our middle or older age.
How did you approach incorporating those philosophical, “big picture” themes into your songwriting? Both lyrically and musically?
EW: Lyrically, I think that we were inspired by something that happened that pushed us into a place of thinking about that. It can be sparked by a conversation or an argument, which can really put yourself at odds with whatever you’re working with. You get to sit there with it. Then, you either express yourself through music or through words — it’s how you process experiences.
TB: Yeah, that’s certainly what I was feeling. For me and for Eric — especially when it comes to lyrics, since we tend to write the music first — it’s about getting a sense of what the music is evoking. We identify how we want it to make us feel. Then, we try to associate specific themes to that particular feeling. For me, there was actually an exact argument that I had with a person at a particular party in Los Angeles which sparked the thought for “High on My Own.” That initial conversation and my reaction to it made me question what my thoughts were — what charged my reaction? Once you start scratching at the surface a little bit, you learn that maybe there’s more behind these reactions than you’re willing to give credit for at the moment. So, yeah, there’s always a catalyst that represents something much deeper. It was a similar thing when Eric wrote “Age of the Bored” — we’ll talk about it together and identify the catalyst.
EW: Yeah, you set the scene and then you dig deep. You’re not really describing that one moment or action, but it sets the scene for it to be a topic.
In that regard, do you find the songwriting process to be quite therapeutic? Does it allow you to learn things about yourself that perhaps you didn’t know before?
EW: Yeah, I don’t think that any of our songs are about things that are fabricated. Most of our songs are based on things that have actually happened to us, whether that’s on a personal level or a more universal level.
TB: Yeah, I actually wouldn’t describe songwriting as therapeutic — as a matter of fact, I would describe lyric writing as a form of tortue. You have this catalyst which opens up a whole world of thought and idea about a much deeper topic… and then you have to condense all of that into four lines! So, you tap into this much deeper emotion and feeling, really tap into something you feel an urgency to say, and then you have very stringent limitations. You also have to take into account: is it going to be fun? Are people going to be actually interested in this? Is it relatable? There are all of these other elements at play that determine if a song is a “full package” or not — even if you’re not thinking about them consciously, they’re an underlying influence.
EW: Even though a song might stem from one individual, I think that what we’re actually getting at is making something that can speak to you if it’s something that you can associate with or relate to. You can adapt the song and apply it to your own experiences in life. It’s not like we’re just talking about literal things that happened to us — it’s more about the big picture.
Digging in a bit on the technical side of your process — at what point in the writing process do you start recording? How much of the song do you plan out prior to tracking?
TB: The initial idea will come from one of the five of us. In a perfect world, we tend to jam the idea and then make a rough recording of that particular idea as a group. From that point, we go into pre-production. That usually looks like a couple of us going into the studio for the day and putting down a rough demo of the song. Then we’ll sit with it. That usually all happens before we have any lyrics written down, maybe a topline, but that’s it, it’s mainly a musical thing. So, that’s what our process generally looks like. Of course, there are some outliers, some odd songs that get written entirely on an acoustic guitar.
EW: We also write in software a lot, so with that you can take a rhythm, get inspired by it and then start layering things over it.
TB: Yeah, that’s true. Typically what we’ll do next is pre-produce all of the songs and decide which ones will work together. At that point, we’ll start to think about arrangements, melodies and lyrics, get all of that stuff sorted. We got most of that all in place before we actually start tracking for the record. But, as I said, that’s all in a perfect world. For our first recordings, we were all over the place. We were just getting the studio working, there was a load of gear that was acting temperamentally. So, that was one of the benefits of having our own space — if we were satisfied with things, we could go back and rework them. This record has been able to follow a step-by-step creative approach. We had the time and the flexibility, which made it easier to follow the process.
EW: It also feels important for me to mention that Toma is definitely the frontman and writes a majority of our songs. So, for us, it’s also really important that someone takes the reins in regard to production choices. It’s important to have that sort of understanding and balance to avoid that “too many cooks” feeling.
TB: That’s true. I’m probably the most interested in engineering and production, the more technical side of the recording process. The rest of the guys are interested in it too, but I’ve just gotten the chance to spend more time working it all out.
EW: You’re passionate about it.
TB: Yeah, so it’s natural that I can come in by myself most days and do some work just to keep things moving along.
What were your influences for this record? How do you approach taking old sounds and incorporating them into new things?
TB: It’s really tough to focus-in on just one influence. I think that the thing that makes an artist unique in their own right is an amalgamation of their collective influence. Like, our keyboardist Kane’s influences are probably totally different than mine or Andy’s or Eric’s. There’s so much that we all draw from. But, if you pinned me down and asked which record I felt really, really influenced this, I’d say Venus And Mars by Wings was one. Last January when I was in the Australian summer, I was just jamming on that record. Even though it’s a ‘70s creation, it mixes in loads of lead synth instruments and loads of lead guitar. There’s a blend of guitar and synth, which I felt is what we wanted to try with our record. Plus, we’re soaking in new music all the time, as individuals and as a band.
EW: Yeah, a cool thing about listening to older artists is that there’s still stuff that we haven’t discovered until now. I’d like to believe that we’re all quite knowledgeable and interested in music from any decade including music now, we’re just soaking up stuff all the time. It’s very inspiring to do that while working on your own shit in conjunction.
Watch the music video for “Mushroom Cloud” by Tempesst below: