Melbourne band Low Rent have flown a bit under the country music radar – but with the release of their new EP, Grace Radio, their sophisticated-yet-laidback alt-country sound should win them some new fans amongst country music listeners. Recently I spoke to Dan Swan, the head honcho of Low Rent.  

I’ll start off by asking you, why country music?

Country music has been in my family for a long time. My father performs in the same band. He always listened to Neil Young and the Rolling Stones, in a more country aspect. And that’s really had an effect on me. It feels like home. It’s ingrained. Yeah [laughs].

So you didn’t do a teenage rebellion through heavy metal, or anything like that?
Well, actually, I did.

I still perform in a metal band as well, so I can’t get rid of that [laughs] interest. So the answer is ‘yes’ to that [laughs].

Are you the lead singer?
Yeah. I am. I sing in the band. It’s progressive metal [laughs].

Are there any other bands? I mean, one’s enough, let alone two, but …
No, two’s as much as I need at the moment [laughs].

And especially when you’re the leader of both and, I would imagine, writing music for both?
Exactly, yes. Writing for both bands. So it’s a different headspace, naturally. But it’s also plenty of work.

It leads me to wonder whether for you, as a songwriter, whether [when] a song idea comes to you, you think, Oh, actually the best – the best way to serve that story is to – is through country, or it’s through metal. Or do you actually set out to write songs for each band differently?
It’s a good question. I’d say that I’d set out for a particular band in mind as opposed to thinking about a line, or something that’s more appropriate for one band or the other. Generally I’ll start with a title for a song and then build from there. So once you’ve got your title, you sort of know which band it’s going to apply to.

Are you quite workmanlike in your songwriting? Do you tend to say, okay, I need some new songs now, off I go, or do you tend to flow with the muse, so to speak?
Yeah. Sure. I am operating all the time. Even if it’s not a full song, it will be sort of gibberish on a notepad, for at least 10 to 15 minutes a day. And sometimes that turns into a song, sometimes it doesn’t. But, yeah, it isn’t a case of sitting down and writing a series of songs because we need a new album, it’s usually for picking and choosing from a big catalogue of music that I’ve got ready to go.

So it sounds like you’re a believer in the showing-up-every-day school of creative work. There are some people who do believe in the idea that you just keep writing and out of that comes something good.
Absolutely. Yeah. To me it’s the same as practising to play guitar. If you do it every day you’re going to get a little bit better each time. It’s the same approach with writing lyrics. You go deeper when you really want to write a song and have it stick, because you put in that practice.

So you talked about the music you were listening to as you were growing up. But you’ve obviously been playing guitar for a while, and singing too, so when did your personal musical history start?
That’s a good question too. I’ve been a massive Beatles fan for as long as I can remember. That’s probably the first band I got into. And, yeah, from there, I think, it was probably about 10 or 11 years old that I wrote my first song, which – no surprise –was a very Beatles-inspired song. But, yeah, I can trace it back to at least that young. And then I’d get other kids in the neighbourhood to come and perform with me, even though they had no idea what they were doing.

Just to try and get a feel for performing live at that age [laughs].

Do you still have a love for harmonic voices?
Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. I mean, Low Rent has a female accompanying – sort of lead singer, you could almost say. as well. And almost every chorus has at least two, three parts in it. So I certainly do.

I remember reading something a while ago saying that humans instinctually respond to harmonic voices more than solo voices.
Absolutely – it’s that crowd mentality, isn’t it? Everybody together [laughs].

So you’ve obviously moved on from the Beatles. When you started writing songs for Low Rent, was it a conscious decision to switch your style, or you just evolved naturally towards the right style for that band?
I think having country music around me so much from that age, as well as the Beatles, it became so ingrained that when I first started to write songs they were country flavoured, and shaped what the band was going to be at that early stage. And I think that has been the case for a long time.

Now, I knew your father was in the band, but is your brother also still in the band?
Yes, he is. He’s the bass player.

Can you imagine the band without family members?
Certainly it would be a different experience without family members. Family makes it that extra special – I don’t imagine it being the same sort of thing without the family involved. I mean, as well as the players my mother’s sort of a co-manager. She’ll sell merchandise at shows, get people up dancing. So it really is everybody involved.

It sounds like there’s not a lot of push-me-pull-you stuff going on. It sounds like it’s quite a harmonious experience.
Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it’s [laughs], it’s fantastic. But every family has [laughs] disagreements.

It’s quite an interesting dynamic because, of course, there are quite a few sibling arrangements, but it’s not that common to have a parent and child in the same band. Even Kasey Chambers doesn’t necessarily play with her father all the time. So it must be interesting for your father, in particular, to almost have a role reversal, because you’re the boss of the band, basically, and he’s not.
That’s right. Exactly, exactly. And he’s happy with that. Way back when it started with him telling me what to do and now all the roles have reversed [laughs].

It’s like a holiday for him almost.
That’s right. He can just enjoy it. And he does. He really does.

And your brother doesn’t mind not having any decisions?
No. He has a similar approach to my father. My brother, Tim, does take on some concept writing. So what I mean by that is the overall sound of a record, or what it’s going to mean overall. He’ll certainly assist with that. So he has got some creative input into the process. But for the most he is similar to my father. He’ll happily do what he’s told [laughs].

Well, I think that works out nicely for you.
It does – it does. It’s ideal.

And, actually, that’s a good segue to my next planned question which was about the concept of the EP, because I’ve only heard the one song but I’ve read that it’s a classic concept record. So I was wondering if you could say what the concept is?
Yeah, for sure. The protagonist that I’ve chosen for all five songs on the EP is a man that’s in prison, and he’s reflecting on his life, different aspects of his life. Things that have led him to where he currently is. By the end of the record he’s on death row, trying to face not only the imminent death, but just reflecting on how his life had led him to this position. I guess, I’m trying to induce from the listener the idea that even though somebody could do such horrible things and end up in a terrible position, that they are still human beings. And they do still think and feel the same way everybody else does, regardless of whatever they may have done. So, yeah, at the high level that’s the concept. 

It sounds like there’s a couple of strands in that, one of which is exploring moral boundaries, and the concept of right and wrong. And the other is having compassion for people who are difficult to have compassion for. So are those themes that you’re interested in, or themes that just emerged in the telling of this story?
I think they were themes that were very clear before even the story writing began. I knew that’s what I wanted the end, that you could feel compassion for somebody like this, even though you’re not supposed to. And I think it has been achieved. When you’ve got that structure – similar to the way I was saying, that I’d write a song with the title and then elaborate from there; same sort of thing with the record culture. We have an idea and a very, very rough outline, then we fill in all the flesh and bone and make it into a breathing thing.

I’ve interviewed quite a few songwriters over the past couple of years – or three years, I guess, and I’ve actually not ever come across anyone who works quite that way. So you are you conscious of being, I suppose, if not unique, but almost unique, I would think, in working from concept first?
Oh, sure, definitely, it’s something I’m aware of, that my approach might not be the same as everybody else’s. But it’s a comfortable way to work for me. It keeps you on the page when you’ve got a really clear idea before you even begin. So, commonly, in music you can have an idea just transform as soon as you get other people involved, or play it a different way than you first imagined. So sticking to that course is really something I strive for.

And it’s not unrelated to the metal side of you either –  it sounds a bit like a Led Zeppelin or The Who thing to do.
Absolutely. Especially the concept idea. That’s a very ’70s idea. Every album in the ’70s [laughs] was a concept record by rock bands. And I love all that music, so I think that’s definitely a little sprinkle in what we’ve done.

So it sounds like your life is suffused with music in a lot of ways. And I note that you’re a trained sound engineer, and you also took over the production of this EP – which, on the one hand, sounds terrific if you love music, but on the other hand, I was wondering if that, at any point, felt like too much responsibility?
It only even feels like too much responsibility if things aren’t going to plan [laughs]. That can be overwhelming. But generally not. I like to have a lot of control. That might be a theme that you’ve picked of some of my responses.

[Laughs] Yeah.
And that’s just control still. You’re not communicating to a producer or an engineer that needs to make your idea into a tangible sonic sound. I can do it myself. So, yeah, I get to sit in that seat as well as the creative writing seat and director of the band, if you will.

Control’s not always a bad thing either, or wanting control’s not a bad thing. It can get a bad name. But I tend to find that people who like to control in the way you’re describing are also very good at taking responsibility for things.
Absolutely. Another word that comes to mind which sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily when you’re talking about art or an artist, is ‘selfish’. If you’re particularly selfish about what you’re doing, that means that nobody is going to change it. It’s not going to stray from the page. It’s not going to become something completely different. And I’m all for being selfish about art and making art.

It’s one thing when you’re a solo performer and you can just boss yourself around, but most bands don’t operate very well unless there’s a benign dictator at the head of them.
Absolutely. I couldn’t even think of a band that doesn’t have that role in it, in some way [laughs]. Sometimes there’s two.

Keith and Mick.
Yes [laughs].

It is a lot of responsibility. But in the end you know that you’ve got the product you want.
Exactly. And that’s what it’s all about. No compromise.

And then you get to hand it over to people like Shane Nicholson and Jeff McCormack to do the finishing touches. So I was wondering how those relationships came about?
Shane had heard of my group before I got in contact with him with this particular record. And I had to find a pocket of time with Shane, because he’s such a busy man, which, in a way, sped up the process for Grace Radio and its production, so we worked on his timeframe, which was earlier this year, about January, February this year he had free to work on something. So we needed to hustle down and get it all ready. But once I made contact with him he was more than happy to be involved, and did a great job mixing the record. And it was also his recommendation to use Jeff McCormack, who he used himself for his own projects. So that was entirely Shane’s doing and thinking, and it was, again, a great move. I think Jeff has done an excellent job mastering it.

And apart from that, just from my own observation of Australian country music and how things work, those relationships tend to become important in other ways. It’s not just how your songs sound, but what you can go on to do, in terms of touring and future collaborations. And, certainly, those two men are very good to know, shall we say?
Absolutely, absolutely. Especially for a band like ours. We have been together for a long time, but we’ve never really taken that full plunge into exploring what Australia might be able to offer us. And already Shane has hinted at good places in Tamworth to look out for, and particular festivals that he has found helpful to his career. So you’re exactly right. It’s that network thing really starting to work in the right way.

And I also find that the country music audience really understands that country music’s a broad umbrella, and is very accepting of acts they haven’t heard of before, regardless of whether those acts are brand spanking new or have been around for a while. So I think it’s a great a genre to work in, and certainly it seems from reading the press release that you’re ready to burst out, in a way. And it’s certainly the right genre to do that in.
For sure. We did a live [song] yesterday on a morning community radio station. That was just myself and Tim on bass. And we were saying the exact same thing. It feels like everything’s in place for us now. We’ve got the right people involved. We’ve got a great publicist. And we’ve got really good songs that might be able to help us break through and get some attention, which is what, I think, we need at the moment.

I guess the trick, though, is – as it is for a lot of musicians – how you balance. Especially working in country, ideally you get out around the country. But it’s a big country and it takes a lot of time and organisation to do that. So, I guess, it’s a question of how much time you can give to it, initially, at least.
Certainly, certainly. And travel is something you really do need to plan for in great detail in Australia, because you’re right, it’s eight hours to the next state, not two hours, like it would be in the US or somewhere. So you’ve really got to hope to get a lot out of that if you’re going to do it. And it can take a toll. It’s a lot of time.

Well it can, but it seems like you’re in the right place. You’ve got a great EP, and you met some good people, and Tamworth is half a year away, so you’ve got time to plan your shows there.
Yeah. Exactly, exactly [laughs].