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ANTHEM FOR AN ENGLISH SUMMER

Broken Gnomes, photo by ILLONA TOBIN
Broken Gnomes, photo by ILLONA TOBIN

Broken Gnomes is probably one of the dumber band names going around right now. But, when you’re making music, picking a dumb name for your band seems to be an essential step on the road to success.  How’s about Tame Impala, or Arctic Monkeys?  The Beatles, anyone? The Jam?  What those four examples have in common, though, is they made/make great music (albeit sometimes great ambient/elevator music). 

Yep, they’ve only gone and done it!

So, do Broken Gnomes have the musical chops to back up their deliciously stupid name?

Well, before we find out, there’s another little issue we must clear up.  You see, Broken Gnomes, as well as having a dumb name, also is something of a West Aussie supergroup. Front man, guitarist and song writer in chief, Cliff Kent is/was part of The Beautiful Losers.  Guitarist, Cissi Tsang, was a sometime member of Perth’s answer to The Fall, Potato Stars, played with Marley Wynn, is a member of Paige McNaught Experience, and makes experimental music under the moniker, samarobryn.  Bass player, Mitch Mitchell (no, not him) has form with Moonlight Wranglers.  Keyboard player and the most sartorially elegant of the Gnomes, Miles Hitchcock, also makes music with Maurice Flavel’s Intensive Care and The Healers. Drummer, Flick Dear has connections with The Holy Rollers, Fische and Warangka, and also plays with the Paige McNaught Experience.  Phew! That’s quite the family tree, not to mention the workload.  No wonder it’s taken them five years to produce their debut EP.

The problem with supergroups is, they never work.  All that musical flex and virtuosity, all that pedigree, only ever leads to disappointment as they overpromise and under-deliver. 

OK, let’s start a fight right here and now.  Name one supergroup that’s ever lived up to the promise implied by its individual members.

I can name only one:  Broken Gnomes.

Yep, turns out they’re not only great at picking band names, Broken Gnomes also make delicious music. Their eponymous (when you have a name that dumb you may as well ride it hard) debut EP contains four slices of shimmering pop that have the keys to the Britpop Roller and not only know how to manoeuvre it through the s-bends, but also how to power it on down the straights at speeds that throw off the cobwebs and halitosis of Cool Britannia.  Every great band has its roots, very few can make them their own the way Broken Gnomes have on their debut EP.

From the strident opener, ‘I Never Really Left You’ — maybe a nod to the 20 or so years it’s taken the Gnome’s song writer, Cliff Kent, to produce some of these tunes — to the dreamy, Smithsesque melancholy of ‘Heaven Sent Me A Sign’, and the tongue in cheek sleaze rock of closer, ‘Keys To The Car’, this is a polished debut that is multifaceted, deftly arranged and played with restraint and joyful freedom in equal measures.

Stand out is third track, ‘In The Storm Again’.  Opening with a simple keyboard and guitar arpeggio, this song builds to an anthemic chorus that, if the world is in any way a fair place, should be this year’s summer pub anthem in locals all across England.  Like Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ and Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’ this song was made for a good old collective sing along while you’re in your cups.  It has just the right amount of heartbreak and hope to carry the dreams of a whole generation, and the guitar lick that carries the obligatory fadeout is one you’ll hear people singing around every street corner.

Yep, they’ve only gone and done it!

So, of course, sitting down for a chat with Kent, Tsang and Dear to try to get behind the magic, I just had to ask, how did you do it?

“I’ve been writing songs, but wasn’t really doing anything in a band context with my songs,” said Kent, getting the ball rolling. “I was still playing in other people’s bands and I wasn’t really interested in my own band at that time, but I got an email and it mentioned a song competition, the Australian Song Writing Competition, and on a whim, I had this dodgy little version of a song sitting on my computer, and I fired it off to them. As it transpired, it was a semi-finalist in the competition. It surprised me, because it was a very wobbly recording, it wasn’t fit to release. That started me thinking, I’ve got stacks of songs, so maybe I should be doing something with them, because I haven’t really done anything with my own songs for 20 years, they were really just lying dormant. So, I thought, I’ll try it again, so I sent some off to a UK song writing competition and got two in the finals there as well. I thought, ‘OK, I might be onto something here’, and that’s when I thought I’ll start getting my songs together, getting organised. I was at a Beautiful Losers gig, Flick was there, and I just started talking to her about getting a band together, and Flick said, ‘Yes I’ll be in that’. So that was the start of it.  Then Flick invited Cissi to join. The band slots together really well, especially since we got Miles in.”

So, yeah, great, but how do you do it?  How do you create THOSE songs?

“Most of it comes naturally,” Kent said, “We haven’t really sat down and tried to orchestrate anything, we just get into a room and just play the songs. It’s pretty organic, pretty natural.”

Uh huh.

“Some songs come together quickly,” added Dear, “and some and some we might talk about and they end up having a different feel. We just keep jamming, and then these two (Kent and Tsang) will look at the guitar parts…”

Mmm hmm.

“Having two guitars and keyboards, there’s a lot going on there, it can get busy pretty easily, so we have to get a bit of space into the songs,” continued Kent, “You want that breathing space, because it makes the other parts of the songs stand out, a bit more dramatic, a bit more intensity.”

Really now?

“So, we do look at spaces in the music too,” said Dear, “and I look at whether I’m driving it along or whatever or adding rhythm or highlights with cymbal notes. We kind of just keep working at it and doing it.”

Hmmmm.

So, there you have it, folks. That’s how the magic happens.

Broken Gnomes, image by Shotweiler Photography
Broken Gnomes, image by Shotweiler Photography

I don’t know why I was expecting any great revelations.  I always do when I ask variations of that question and I always get the same response, ‘The magic just happens. Somehow.’  Which is really code for, ‘Don’t ask us, we’re just the musos, how are we supposed to know?’

Note to self, stop asking that question, because like a good band name, it makes us all look dumb.

You see, music is magic that flows from the people who get together to create it.  Trying to deconstruct it breaks the spell and leaves the components of a song lying shattered on the studio floor, unrecognisable.  Try to reconstruct them and all you get is the sound of nails on a chalkboard (nasty sound, eh, Flick?).

So, Kent, Tsang and Dear were ever so polite when what they really should have said was, ‘How would we know?’ or sweary variants to the same effect. 

It’s magic. Broken Gnomes have got it.  Let’s just leave it at that.

Whereas talk about their band name and you’ll get chapter and verse.  In my defence, it wasn’t a question I asked — it’s a question I never ask, for the above-mentioned reason: band names are dumb — we meandered into it, somehow.  Seasoned musicians like these should know that, when the origins of your band’s name come up it’s your job to deflect, deflect, deflect.  Famously, when asked where the name of his band came from, Paul Weller replied, “It popped up out of the toaster one morning.”  So, that was 13 minutes of the tape that was completely unusable, although we did at one point start to discuss genomes and whether the band would wear hats on stage.

For the record, Tsang was for the wearing of Gnome hats, the other two were against.  It’s the closest they came to an argument in the time we spent together.  As a diversionary tactic Tsang then began to discuss absent bandmate, Hitchcock’s, choice of clothing only to have pointed out to them that their own choice of clothing that morning was hardly the pinnacle of elegance.  To further add to the record, I rather like Iron Maiden, but I don’t have any of their t-shirts.  Tsang has at least one and, apparently, never turns up to rehearsals wearing their gardening clothes.

Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

But, in case you’ve missed the point, Kent, et al, if a journalist ever has the temerity to ask you where your band’s name came from, the only correct answer is, ‘F**k off!’

Broken Gnomes’ debut EP was meant to be a debut album, but COVID shortened the time they were able to spend in the studio, so the band, and the entire world, will just have to wait.

“We should call our next album Lockdown, or something,” quipped Tsang, making light of the band’s frustrated ambition. 

Broken Gnome’s debut EP was recorded 14 months ago and was due to be launched in February this year, but the pandemic thwarted that as well.  When I spoke to them, Perth was at the tail end of another snap lockdown, so the band’s 14 May launch date was looking tenuous as well.  At the time of writing, things have turned around and all is looking good for the live shows.

What I learned from speaking to these three Broken Gnomes was that their circumstances see them unbowed and filled with humour and enthusiasm for their cause. In fact, as well as the 13 minutes they wasted going on and on about their band name, there also was a good proportion of raucous laughter on the tape.  We spoke for quite a while, but turns out they didn’t say as much as the tape counter suggested.

They did give a glimpse into the ongoing recordings for their debut album which, according to Tsang, anyway, will see a new song, ‘Volcano’ released, “at the end of the year.”  It’s a song they are very keen on as it contains somewhere an extended guitar solo that came into existence through the Gnome’s ‘organic’ way of working.

“We had a funny time at the studio with ‘Volcano’,” started Tsang, “I was laying down my guitar and the vocals were switched off, so I was just soloing…”

“We were just sitting outside (in the studio control room) and I was listening and thinking, ‘What song is that?’,” said Kent, “I couldn’t recognise the song, it was just like this long three-and-a-half-minute lead break. We had to go in and say, ‘What is that?’”

“I just had a diva moment (much laughter from all),” said Tsang.  “The best solution in my opinion was to just not have vocals. Every song has your vocals on it. How boring is that (much more laughter)?”

Watch out for the 12 inch version of ‘Volcano’ coming to a record store near you at the end of this year, with the full Tsang solo in all it’s glory.  Now I fully understand why they go by the name ‘Guitar Demon’ on their socials.

As for the Broken Gnomes, they have ambitions for interstate touring and, if their debut EP is anything to go by, their upcoming full-length offering will be enormous.  They’re not wedded to anything just yet, though, experience, particularly that accumulated over the last eighteen months, has taught them to be measured.  Bombast isn’t something this band does.

Pressed about their future, Kent simply said, “We have long term dreams.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Broken Gnomes launch their debut EP at Lyrics Underground on 14 May. Get event information here.

Follow Broken Gnomes on Facebook and Instagram.

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