Twelve Foot Ninja Part One: "You Shit What You Eat"

Scott Adams caught up with exciting Australian outfit Twelve Foot Ninja at their Trollburger Tour stop in Canberra last week. In the first of a two part interview, he chats with guitarist Stevic about influences and 'that' crowd-funded video

It’s a filthy night in the Nation’s Capital, cold and wet and, in the best traditions of hospitality, the staff at the ANU Bar – venue for the evening’s festivities – have insisted I stand outside in the weather whilst I wait for my interview with Twelve Foot Ninja driving force Steve ‘Stevic’ Mackay. Insult is added to outrage as the only dry spot outside the venue is placed squarely beneath a PA speaker blasting out some drivel from hipster beacon Triple J. Could the evening get off to a worse start? I think not.

Still, when we’re finally allowed back in – Stevic has mislaid his tour pass and has to persuade the frowning bouncers that he’s part of ‘the band’, we make our way into the bowels of the venue for a chat. Beers are offered – always a good sign – and accepted and then we’re away, shooting the breeze about Soundwave – the band hope to be included on the bill next year, and this subject in turn morphs into a brief discussion on the behavioural patterns of Australian audiences. Mackay is, as he is on every other topic, eloquent on the matter. “That slamdancing shit has started to creep into our shows; with the heavy parts people have started smashing one another, and not everyone’s in that headspace. One poor girls' got her ribs broken in the first song and had to get taken to hospital, another bloke cut his head open… I guess when I was young it was just moshing.” And you picked people up when they fell over didn’t you? “Yeah, there was more camaraderie. Now it’s just ‘let’s fucking kill people!’”

And the kung fu moves? “Yeah, all the elbows and shit… I’m not into it.  Each to their own I suppose. I think it’s funny because they don’t have the opportunity in our music to do it for long because it’ll be reggae, or something and then they have to just… you can’t change the world I suppose. We just try and promote looking after one another a bit.”

How did you come to that decision? When you gathered together originally as a unit, who said there’s going to be reggae, there’s going to be nu-metal, there’s going to be thrash. How did you decide that such variation was going to be the norm? “I think predominantly it came from… I started the band, and I’ve always written songs like that and that’s the honest truth.  I used to think that it was a bit of an affliction, that I couldn’t write a ‘normal’ song. But then I just went with it. I was fortunate enough to have a classical guitar teacher who constantly showed me Tom Waits, Frank Zappa – I think it warped my mind a bit!” How old were you when that happened? “About thirteen or fourteen. Quite young for Frank Zappa! But I started getting into this stuff, and then somebody asked me if I’d heard Mr Bungle, and I hadn’t so they played me Squeeze Me Macaroni from the self- titled debut album, and it just blew my mind, because it was awesome. It was like a cartoon playing in your mind.”

What was awesome before that moment? “I was into Tommy Emmanuel.” Blimey, there’s a huge gap between him and Mr Bungle! “I also liked the Brazilian composer Villa Lobos, who could be put in that classical box but he also had this bossa nova , jazzy vibe ingrained in that. He just had this attitude that he was a bit of a cigar-smoking pimp. I also listened to Yes and King Crimson, and I guess subconsciously there were all these eggs being laid in my brain that just hatched later on! And then when I first heard Pantera I felt that that was amazing, you know, the tightness. And that song Replica by Fear Factory just spun me out. Actually I don’t think Dino Cazares gets enough credit for being one of the pioneers of that kind of gated, machine gun-type sound. And he’s been doing it forever! We didn’t have cable TV in the country, and I had to stay up and watch Rage, you know, playing that game ‘if the next song’s shit I’m going to bed!’, waiting for the good stuff to come on, that was how you found good stuff in these days. A bit different to today.”

So when you look at Villa Lobos, Tommy Emmanuel, Dime and Dino – can you draw a line through those guys connecting the way they play? I suppose there are a lot of downstrokes in Villa Lobos! “You know what, I think there is! I think that the thing that strikes me is charisma – they’ve all got charisma, and they all control the guitar, they don’t let the guitar control them. Dime was awesome. Villa Lobos was the same. He was the boss. And Tommy has the same thing. That guitar is saying ‘don’t hurt me!’. And Dino has always been great at getting these crazy sounds, always experimenting.”

All these people are playing established musical styles, but from a remove of thousands of miles – do you think that distance from the source – Villa Lobos playing Spanish guitar music from Brazil, Dino and Dime essentially reworking the British blues power of Tony Iommi from the Southern states of the US- do you think that adds to the pioneering qualities they display? “There’s a really good you tube series called Everything is a Remix which summarises creativity. It’s really the epitome of it. It’s the culmination of pre-existing ideas brought together to form a new mutant.” There are only eight notes in the scale! “Yes! How many revolutionary inventions bring together two existing technologies in a way that nobody would have expected was possible? The broader your spectrum of influence the more original sounding your output will be. I say this in nearly every interview, but I read something that Puffy Bordin from Faith No More said, which is that you ‘shit what you eat’. And that sums it up. If all you listen to is hardcore, then all you’re going to create is largely that, unless you’re tapping into some sort of unknown source. For me, there’s always something you can get out of something, and when you bang them all together-“ Is there anything you think shouldn’t be mixed together? You wouldn’t mix dubstep with a bossa nova? “Dubstep is a tough one. We were probably a bit late on that with Silent Machine; we used a couple of samples but I think that style just got hammered. It almost became annoying as a style, very quickly. It was a real faddy kind of thing so I don’t think I’d do any more with dubstep. I wouldn’t try any style I didn’t think I could do authentically.  You can hear when a metal band is doing jazz, and they aren’t jazz musicians. It comes off as a bit weird.  Trying too hard”.

Whereas when you listen to Silent Machine, you would expect the collision of elements on the record to jar at some point – I was waiting for the ‘oh no, I can’t have that’ moment – and yet the whole thing is seamless. It flows very, very well. “Thank you. I think that’s what you strive for. There have to be elements of continuity as well as elements of juxtaposition, because otherwise it’s too jolting. I think that’s one part of Mr Bungle I didn’t want to take on board.” The unlistenable bits? “Yes, but that’s their prerogative. They want to jolt people. That’s Mike Patton! I like to look at musical principles. Meshuggah revolutionised syncopated rhythms in metal, and that’s a principle you can take,  Mr Bungle have the fearless genre mashing. Regardless of whether it’s jolting or not it’s a principle you can take. You get a few of those ideas and put them together – you’ll be surprised what come out sometimes.” Do you surprise yourself sometimes? “Yes! I guess I’ve got a bit of ADD with music. (Vocalist) Kin was saying when I was DJing in the car on a long drive that I just flick from one thing to the next. I find it more interesting to listen to fifteen different songs in a short period of time. You start making these snap judgements in your brain and something in that appeals to me. A good friend of mine plays guitar in Jamiroquai in the UK, and I sometimes think ‘fuck it would be sick if they just went into something really brutal now!” The thing is, you know they can as musicians don’t you? “Oh shit yeah! And I would love to experience it. So I thought fuck it, I’ll just do it myself. So we wrote a song called Portrait 1 (off our first EP), and I sent it to Rob (Harris, the aforementioned Jamiroquai guitarist) saying this is inspired by you, mixed with what I’d like to see happen. It’s how I imagine a couple might be out on a summer’s day having a picnic, then the next thing you know she’s hanging him up on a hook in a garage. It just takes that turn. I love it!”

We’re actually here because we’re meant to be talking about this Trollburger Tour the band is undertaking – you are two dates in so far – all going well? “Very well. It’s been good to get out and blow the cobwebs away. It’s been a few months since the American Tour, and even though that was pretty rigorous it’s good to get match fit. After the first show it felt good to be back. The crowds have been really cool; I think when you release clips you see a palpable change in the crowd. Whether it’s that they perceive you differently or whatever I don’t know”. Do you think so? I guess a video clip is this generation’s version of the old seven inch single isn’t it? “Yes. Clips are very important I think, because they create a perception. Whether or not that perception is accurate is another thing, but that’s entertainment, you know?” 

I was reading the comments underneath another band’s videos on you tube the other day, and from what was being said it did strike me that this is how a lot of young music fans receive music these days – through you tube. “Yes, they create playlists and let it run!”

So when you decided to do a crowd-funded video (for Ain’t Thatt a Bitch, with its attendant ‘trollburger’ theme), was it to fulfil the need of that element that only watch videos, or was it just something you felt like having a crack at? “I think the thing is, I had a go at making videos from the get-go. It was just a toe in the water thing, and it worked. So we did it again, an that worked, and we got inundated with people saying ‘make more clips!’. So we decided to go with that, and through making these other clips I’d accumulated a lot of ideas, but an Idea is only as good as your ability to execute it. So from that point I came up with this elaborate idea in my head, a lot of which came from talking with Periphery about trolls. And then I started researching about trolling and getting right into it. And I came up with the idea in my head (which was pretty much how the video came out). So I started pricing the project up and I realised it just wasn’t plausible for a band in our position. It would be mental! For an independent band to spend that much money would just be crazy. You don’t make any money back from videos; they’re even worse than albums! So then I started thinking of crowd funding. It seemed perfect. It wasn’t like people would be contributing to something that lines our pockets directly. And I thought other people would get that vibe. If you like our clips, if you like our videos, then get involved and get some sort of exclusive little thing in return.” What was the most popular ‘prize’ you offered? “I think it was the digital EP. The thing we did with (other guitarist) Rohan’s jazzy acoustic versions of some of the songs,  the skype chats were very popular and we’re just about to head over to Perth for a barbeque, which will have to be good!”