A reflection on the writing of a modern Australian classic from the man himself.
Ten years ago, Jack Ladder released Hurtsville – an album that’s become a cherished gem within the Australian music canon. Hurtsville was a resounding achievement for Ladder, representing a songwriter firmly in touch with his creative and emotional consciousness.
Pulling apart love and lust, with himself largely as the victim, Ladder’s balladry is honest and earnest, while Burke Reid’s production is equally profound. Reid’s ability to mirror Ladder’s lyrical heartache with spacious, echoic atmospheres is part of the reason the album still stands tall a decade on.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Hurtsville – which has been re-issued and will see Ladder perform alongside his band The Dreamlanders at The Forum on Thursday May 6 – we asked Ladder to unpack that fateful album, track by track. Here goes.
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‘Beautiful Sound’ was the last song written for the album. I was living in a studio apartment in east LA with Kirin [J Callinan]. We didn’t know anyone. It was our first time there together. We’d walk around exploring – not very LA – and catch the metro downtown.
I had a brown bicycle I’d ride to Vons for a case of Tecate. We’d walk past Danzig’s house with the spooky overgrown lawn to go to the House of Pies where I’d have some blueberry cheesecake and Kirin would usually order clam chowder.
I wrote this walking past the lemon trees on Palmerston Place. When I recorded the demo I realised I could send a reverb bus to another reverb bus. A revelation.
When I recorded it for the album, we spent a long time creating a stereo tremolo drone with Kirin and I riding tremolo effects in real time. I wanted it to sound like the orchestra tuning up and also a little like the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest theme by Jack Nitzsche.
The chorus is a reference to a Silver Jews song, ‘Blue Arrangements’.
A good idea for a song usually doesn’t work when you write it down. More often than not the best songs are bad ideas. ‘Cold Feet’ is one of them.
When I used the joke “I wanna make like a tree”, I knew I was in for trouble. The demo came quite fully formed with the backwards drum feel and the guitar texture.
I was using this old Rhythm Ace drum machine and the only way to create dynamics in the songs was to mute sections of the drums. That’s a technique used all over the record but with most success on this track.
Kirin’s guitar tone on this song was crucial. We had three amps in this huge room with mics up on the ceiling. The drums also got the large treatment. I wanted the record to be small sounding like Young Marble Giants – which is hard to understand. Made a mountain out of a molehill.
We played this for a year before recording ‘Hurtsville’ and we still didn’t know how to record it. We were playing this drum machine through a PA monitor in the house and using mics placed randomly around the house to get depth. I loved listening to the drum machine going for hours. Tweaking the delays. I could listen to it forever.
The flip side was it was super annoying because nothing was recorded to grid, just the drum machine with a wandering tempo. So if you wanted to make edits it was a messy procedure. I think that gives the record it’s weird humanity.
I wrote the song at my friend’s parents house in east Sydney. I was cat sitting after fracturing my elbow in an epic romantic fail.
I wrote this around the same time as ‘Hurtsville’. I was really quite badly injured. I could play the guitar part with one finger laying down.
I was in hospital for a week. There was an old Russian guy who would shit the bed every night. They gave me a lot of Endone to take home. I was thinking about Michael Jackson. He’d recently died. I was thinking about Australian Idol and the dire state of things.
I remember Kirin and I played ‘Position Vacant’ opening for Wolfmother in Brisbane and the sound guy said it just sounded like Depeche Mode, which pissed me off, but turned me on to Depeche Mode. I was just writing a Chuck Berry-style song. Or Hank Williams. I was very slow on the uptake of modern music.
I had a few different versions of this song. It started as more of a dick swinging rock’n’roll track but I didn’t buy it.
We were listening to this band called Ike Yard that used these claustrophobic rolling kicks and I did the demo with some metal pots and pans for the drum sounds.
The lyric was kinda funny but the tone of voice I used to sing it rendered the humour void. Donny [Benét] brought his string synth to the session in Yass and that was the first time I fell in love with the Solina sound.
Also, the guitar tone that cuts through everything. We did that between the hours of 3 and 5am. It sounded like ships grinding together.
‘Blinded by Love’
I read about this guy in a Who? Weekly magazine who lived on a deserted island and was extending an offer to any lady willing to come and live with him – I think he’d made his money in opals. I related to the isolation and how pathetic it sounded.
When we were recording ‘Blinded by Love’, this old money army family showed up at the studio because they were friends with the owner of the house and one of his daughters was interested in music.
I remember it was a struggle for Kirin to find an original part so he made this sound like furniture being moved around in an apartment upstairs. And that was the army family’s introduction to the recording studio… utter confusion.
At the end of the track you can hear the fire crackling. I remember holding the mic there for too long until it got hot and I dropped it.
I wrote these last two songs in Berlin. I’d gone to stay with a friend. He was living with seven Spanish students. He had to throw his spare mattress out the window when I got there because a girl had pissed all over it the night before. That was supposed to be my mattress.
I decided to cut my trip short and spend the last of my money on a place to myself. I spent a week inside writing songs. My girlfriend was supposed to come visit me at some point. She gave me the wrong arrival date and I went out to the airport a day early. I think I started writing the song then.
Recording it was tricky. It’s very static. Lots of moving parts propelling it forward. I made up a French phrase, “Tétine Amour”, then the song showed up in a French erotic film.
‘Giving Up the Giving Up’
I went to New York in 2008. I organised to stay with a friend in Bed-Stuy. I thought I’d make a name for myself on the folk circuit.
One thing led to another. I bought a guitar from a guy called Cobra Snake. I moved to an apartment on 3rd Street opposite the Hells Angels and lived in a closet space. I played Monday midnight slots at clubs on the Lower East Side to only the sound guy.
I went to the cinema in West Village and watched French new wave films. I drank until I was sick. And lived on white cheese pizza slices.
Eventually I got a gig playing on a Fox News breakfast TV segment. I bought a suit on sale from Barneys but chickened out of wearing it. The host asked me how tall I was and I said “six foot a million”. Then my visa expired and I left town.
I re-recorded the vocal when we were mixing it using a cheap Chinese reverb pedal into the Neve desk. That’s the sound.