Interview: Digital-Only Releases, Japan ~ Beat, Melbourne

Within the first six months of this year, Sydney’s Ray Mann Three have demonstrated the right way an independent band can keep their name out there on the airwaves and in the press as well as pleasing their growing fan-base… The Sydney three-piece, led by ex-Kid Confucius guitarist Ray Mann, have just released their third digital-only EP of 2009 titled “Opa Opa”, and it’s another slice of some of the smoothest and funkiest soul Australia has to offer. Recently, the outfit has also been celebrating an unexpected bout of success in Japan, with their track “Smile” hitting the top 10 of the most downloaded songs on the Soul and R&B iTunes chart. Beat caught up with Ray himself this week to discuss Japan, new recordings and the launch this week of their new EP. By Gav Ross.

Are you a bit taken aback by the response to the album in Japan and the airplay it is getting?
“Definitely! The first reports we had about response to The Ray Mann Three’s album in Japan were exciting for us, if a little bewildering. We’ve never been to Japan, and we have no idea what people are listening to there. The idea that, after spending years slowly and quietly trying to find our audience here in Australia, there can be this sudden positive response to our music so far away, and only a few weeks after the album’s release over there… well, we’re still getting our heads around that one!”

Tell me about some of the songs on Opa Opa. How long ago were the tracks recorded? Around the time of the album and you kept them aside, or have you recorded more since then?
“With the exception of the album track, the music on the short-player is brand new. Since we released the album – around 12 months ago now – The Ray Mann Three’s live show and our collaborations with other artists friends have developed in interesting directions. The three of is decided to document that, “the story since our album”, over three digital releases, with three tracks each. On this “Opa Opa” short-player, in addition to the title track from the album, are two examples of the music that has materialized since – a new remix of another of our tracks, “Feels So Good”, by Sydney producer and DJ Jamie Lloyd, and a live version of “Opa Opa”, full of improvisation and spontaneous twists and turns – a good example of what happens to our songs when we play them live.”

Will you be sticking with digital-only releases until another album you think? Will this be the last EP for a while?
“That was originally the plan – three digital-only releases between albums: “Smile” in January, “Hook Me Up” in April, and now “Opa Opa”, before moving on to the next album and beginning a new process with new possibilities. These digital-only releases are almost like our “live updates” of how our music is developing in the meantime. But who knows: depending on the response (and if we’ve learnt anything from our current Japanese experience, it’s that you can never predict a response), we may release another “update”. The digital-only releases have been a really interesting, positive process, and I feel like we’ve only just nicked the tip of the iceberg in terms of the possibilities of that format for an independent band in our position.”

I like the way a colour identifies each release, while they still have the same design aesthetic. Will you continue this look?
“Thank you – glad you like. For me, the audio and visual aesthetic of The Ray Mann Three go hand-in-hand. I’ve been working up the visual side of things for as long as the band’s been developing its sound: simple, sparse, vintage, raw, and still sketchy. While I really enjoy working within the current look, I don’t want to sit in this style forever. My hope is that, as the music evolves, so too will the design aesthetic.”

How have your live sets changed in the last 6 months or so? Have certain song arrangements evolved into something different, or are you using any new equipment?
“The Ray Mann Three live show has evolved into something very different to the album, like a more dynamic, free-form companion to it. We use the album versions of the songs only as the blueprint for our live show. As a band, we’ve developed since releasing the album; particularly over our month of shows in Melbourne earlier this year, I felt the band beginning to evolve into this tight-but-elastic unit, where we can spontaneously go anywhere together, right in the middle of a song – and it feels really exciting to us, something we want to continue to explore. So from that perspective, the arrangements are constantly evolving, but still within the vocabulary we established on the album. Equipment-wise, we still keep it as sparse and stripped-back as we did on the album – minimal drum kit, hardly any effects – and, being only a drums-bass-guitar trio, that forces us to work a little harder for different dynamics and colours throughout the show. Hopefully, that comes across to the audience; it’s a very intimate show, you can see that we’re responding to eachother and to you, and that determines, moment to moment, how we play each song for that show. As I mentioned before, things happen to our songs when we play them live.”

What are plans for the rest of 2009? A Japan visit soon?
“There’s a Ray Mann art exhibition in spring in Sydney – it’s my very first gallery show, and I’m really excited and nervous about it. It’ll be a retrospective of the last few years of band-related art, sketches, designs and motion graphics (such as the kind that made it into the ‘Opa Opa’ music video). As for travel, while there are no international plans as yet, we would LOVE to go to Japan!”

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