Interview: Jagwar Ma on the importance of tour journals, hanging in Boston, and the most vital part of the presidential election

Jagwar Ma is Tame Impala’s cooler younger brother: Psychedelic, but with a more immediate dance influence. However, Gabriel Winterfield, one third of the Australian group, compares the band to the Chemical Brothers “without the visuals.” But Winterfield, who sings and plays guitar, is also quick to point out that Jagwar Ma, as a band, is still in its infancy. “I don’t know how we categorize ourselves yet. I try not to,” he says. “It’s not something that any of us are really bothered by.”

The trio first started in 2011 as a one-off project for Winterfield and Jono Ma, who plays guitar, synths, and beats. In 2012, they added a third member, Jack Freeman, on bass. Fast forward to 2016 and Jagwar Ma is on its second international tour, supporting their latest LP, Every Now & Then. The standout lead single “O B 1” plays only at the coolest Allston house parties, while the production on “High Rotations” oozes like a Nine Inch Nails deep cut imported directly from a Sydney warehouse.

Jagwar Ma returns to Boston this Wednesday (November 9) to play Brighton Music Hall in Allston (giveaway: win a pair of tickets and a signed vinyl copy of Every Now & Then). Last week we caught up with Winterfield over the phone an hour later than we were supposed to, as the band was just leaving baggage claim in Austin after an hour-long flight delay. If Winterfield, who goes by “Gab,” was frustrated, he didn’t come across that way. Our conversation flowed as effortlessly as two friends catching up over a pint. We talked about his journaling habit, why Neil Young is so good, and the most important part of this presidential election.

Cory Lamz: What do you do when you’re on the plane? How do you kill time?

Gab Winterfield: Actually, sometimes I do nothing. You know, when you have all of this stimuli — your books, or your iPad, or whatever — you get really bored of it. You get bored of it then you stop using it, then you’re really bored on the plane. I just feel like if you don’t engage with anything to begin with, you won’t be bored. You’ll just sit and relax and chill.

I also just bought Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I’d been told to read that book, so I just dove straight into that. It’s pretty good.

I was also listening to the new Neil Young record. Neil Young Live at the Cellar Door, part of the Neil Young archives. He re-released a lot of these old, quiet, intimate moments that he did just after CSNY had broken up and Buffalo Springfield had just broken up. It’s really, really good. He’s kind of amazing because they’re the kind of shows that are in front of maybe 100 people or less. He’ll announce on the mic, “Oh, this is a new song coming out on my next record.” It’s kind of amazing to think that those songs are just sort of in their infancy of recognition.

The thing that I’ve always loved about Neil Young too is that he always gives 100 percent, no matter if it’s a small audience like that or Madison Square Garden or a huge stadium.


When you’re performing, what’s your approach?

It depends. It depends on a lot of things. I think you do have to pitch your shows to some extent. I think it’s a level of being flexible as well. For us, and the kind of music that we make, the show has to be in sync with the environment and the performance. It’s like, if you’re playing a festival during the day, you have these types of songs. If you’re playing another festival or later at night, you’re playing different songs.

It’s always about… it’s kind of an angle thing. You just pitch yourself. In the smaller shows, for example, if you just go a 110 percent from the moment you started, then it’s like, “What the fuck? Why are they doing that?” For me it feels a bit impersonal. If you do that, though, if you play more intimately but in a bigger, festival-type surrounding, it can also feel a bit disconnected. Our shows vary, depending on the crowds we play for.

So you guys just played KEXP and did a smaller set on YouTube. When you’re talking about these different types of performances, and the different energy that you put into it, what kind of prep is involved? How is it different?

It’s like a pre-meditation thing. You just kind of think about what the environment is going to be like, how it’s going to feel, what’s gonna work with people, how communicative you are going to be between songs, and whether you don’t want to be. In the case of a radio performance like that, a lot of people… Obviously it’s a 360 [degree] sort of media experience, and you’re being filmed, and blah blah blah, but at the end of the day, the majority of the listeners are just hearing it through the radio.

It’s always important to make it feel as live as possible in those kinds of shows, and then make it seem different as well. We’re trying not to improvise but to change percussions on the melodies and Jono will try and change the beat somewhat. I think that makes for a cool experience. It’s a radio performance, so it should be a bit different and a bit special to that radio station.

But that was amazing. The KEXP… They have all of this new studio set up now. It’s a pretty impressive studio space. Despite the fact that we were pretty anxious before we started, I actually think it worked out quite well.

When you’re saying you get anxious before you started, is that nerves?

Yeah. Sometimes it’s an element of nerves and anxiety. The difference between being nervous before a show and being anxious before a show is whether you feel like you’re capable of it, whether you’ve done enough prep, whether you’ll rehearse and pull it off. And there’s sometimes, you know that it’s going to be garbage. “This is not going to be good.” And other times, you feel nervous, but it’s obviously going to be great. You can feel the energy surging through. Which is a good vibe.

And some of that can also play into what the crowd is like. Have you ever had a show in which you felt great going into it, but then the crowd is not so great, and that affected your performance? Or vice versa?

Personally, and this is all of the band as well, we’re not the type of band that will put any blame on the audience if we don’t feel like the show was as good as it could have been. It’s all about self-influence: What didn’t I do? Why didn’t the crowd react in the way that I anticipated? Ultimately, you can blame the weather, you can say this, you can say that.

You also brought up the notion of being a band. I remember in some previous interviews that you guys had, you said it didn’t necessarily feel like a band endeavor for the first album, but that has certainly switched going into this album…

I think the operation in the live arena has always been a band. There is something very band-esque about the way we have guitars, drums, stuff like that. In the studio it’s a bit different.

Another thing you’ve said too is that, in your recording process, you’re holed up in the French countryside. You’re there, and your outside influences are cut off. You’re much more isolated than you would be otherwise. With this album, what experiences led you to writing these songs and the sound that you came up with?

I think the answer to that question is included implicitly. Ultimately, it’s quite abstract. You don’t know why something influenced you or how your stream of consciousness came out. You might draw some parallels to something that’s happened in the past, or you have a new experience.

We went from being guys in Australia to touring as a national experience to touring around the world several times. I think that was probably one of the biggest influences in the making of the record. That’s the biggest point of difference, really, between the first record and the second record. I think that’s where some of that confidence has gone… Somewhat introverted and trying to define ourselves a bit more as well… Trying to keep whatever the perception of us might be at arm’s length.

Musicians often talk about how after you reach a certain level of success in touring, and sales, and what have you, all of the sudden, people are asking you questions all of the time. You may have to think about things that you may not have had to think about before.

Yeah, I think as the band progresses, more people have an opinion of you. More people are quite willing to give their opinions at you about a song or about a track or about anything, whether they think that this is so much better than the first record, or they’ll say, “Oh, I really like the first record. I don’t like this one.” And you’re like, “Okay.” It’s a funny thing to be a part of. That’s where you really become judgmental, and go, “What are we actually? How much do we care about what other people think?”

A lot of that also has to surely bring you closer together as a band.

We were all close to begin with. We all knew each other for a long time before we ever played in bands together. I think we’re pretty aware of who we all are. Jono and I know each other quite closely. As creative counterparts, we know how to get the best out of each other. You just always know your strengths and weaknesses and stuff like that.

You feel like you have this kingdom that you want to protect. You want to keep moving forward, and you want it to be prosperous. Ultimately, you want to play in front of as many people as you can. That’s been our goal.

Our goals are not really that complicated. We want to make the best music that we can, that we think is the best music. We want to play in front of as many people as we can. And we want people to hear our music. That’s all it really is, but doing it our own way, not sacrificing our own understandings of what we think is good.

To that point, in this go-round with the tour, what can fans expect from the experience?

I imagine that they maybe know more about us as people. That may come across more, as opposed to generic guys who stand in a band and say, “Oh, are you guys having a good time?” That kind of stuff. I don’t want to do that anymore because it’s not as personal as it can be. I’m so stoked and proud and absolutely flattered that we have legit fans that like our shit. I’d like to think that maybe they like us as well. It feels more personal. We have a way more personal connection with our fans.

Naturally the set up at the moment is new tracks off the new record and older tracks off the old record and things in between.

You’ve been on the road for a while now. You’re used to touring. What are some things that you absolutely must have when you’re on the road?

My journal. If I don’t have that, I don’t have a voice.

Are you writing in it every day?

Yeah, pretty much. I try to write in it and consolidate my ideas and my thoughts. I write some songs or little bits and pieces constantly. It used to be my laptop. My laptop was my everything. I’d always travel with my laptop. I haven’t really been recording or doing anything on my laptop recently. Now I’m more just in the writing phase of stuff, like writing stories and little drawings.

Will that eventually end up going into the next record?

Possibly, yeah. I don’t think of it like that. I just think it’s important to have that constant output and discourse. I’ve always kept a journal since I was a kid, so it plays an important role in everything. Sometimes you’re a bit fatigued and you want to remember the things that actually happened and these experiences. It’s cool to write them down and reflect on them.

Especially to be able to look at this time period years later and have the memories come back so fresh.

Yeah, absolutely.

In addition to that, what do you do when you’re not doing the soundcheck or you’re not performing?

I rest quite a lot. I sleep. That’s what I do. I always want to do something. It’s always good to find a cool restaurant or a cool record store. We went record shopping in Chicago. We actually found a great instrument store, looked at some cool guitars. Then the recorded store. We walked around the Art Institute [of Chicago]. We had a nice day. We caught the L Train, which is really fun. It was such a novelty thing for us, too. And then we grabbed some food, and then we went to soundcheck and that was the day. Sometimes we meet up with friends. We have quite a few friends in New York and L.A.

Ultimately, you need to rest as well. You have to remember that you’re not on holiday. You actually need to save up. If you spend all day seeing stuff, by the time you’re on stage, you’re just a bit tired.

When you are touring around the world, what’s the one bit of home that you miss the most?

The beach. Definitely the beach. The beach more so than anything, and swimming in saltwater.

When you’re going across the United States at least, there’s not a lot of opportunity for ocean there.

No, not entirely. But also we live in the U.K. now. When we’re in the U.K. we don’t see much of the beach, really. Obviously.

When did you move to the U.K.?

We’ve sort of been coming and going in the last few years from the U.K., but this year we’ve spent quite a lot of time in the U.K., more so than last year. It’s still very intermittent, not full time.

Well, you’re constantly on the road.

Exactly. It’s a very nomadic lifestyle.

Are you guys performing tonight?

No, tomorrow, at Sound on Sound Festival. We’ve got quite a few friends here, so we’ve got to catch up with them too. We play Sound on Sound tomorrow, and then Boston next week.

Yeah, we’ll see you in Boston!

Yeah, man, on a personal note I’ve just gotta say that we really, really love Boston. Last time we played we were actually in Cambridge [at the Sinclair in 2014], but yeah it was really cool, near Harvard. It was an amazing place to be. And it’s also worth noting that we will be in Boston after the decision of the election. That will be a very interesting night, I’m sure.

Boston is a very interesting place for that too, because it’s a very intellectual city. There are so many universities here. Will you be able to spend some time in Boston after the show, or do you have to leave right away?

I think we’re gonna hang out. It’s going to be interesting. It’s a very, very historic election, so it will be interesting to see what people have to say. I imagine that Massachusetts is a fairly blue state…?

Yeah, that’s right. Very progressive. A lot of the things that have happened nationally have often first happened in Massachusetts at the state level.

Yeah, I’d assumed so. It goes hand-in-hand with it being intellectual.

I didn’t anticipate asking you these questions, but you did open the door to it. Do you have a particular political leaning in this election?

Look, I don’t really agree with the way that Trump has conducted himself in a lot of it. He’s a pretty repugnant person. Whether any of his policies he actually means or he’s just saying to get headlines, I don’t know. But I think Clinton probably deserves it, I think. I don’t know. I’m not American. I don’t think it’s right, really, for someone who is not American to comment on U.S. politics.

The saddest thing to me is that neither of these two potential world leaders have said much about the environment, because they know that it doesn’t rate very well. And I think that’s really sad. I think it actually should be the number one agenda in 2016. Ultimately if people focused more on repairing the environment and repairing the kinds of issues this generation will be faced with, a lot of other problems will start to shrink down, you know?

JAGWAR MA + KLANGSTOF :: Wednesday, November 9 at Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave. in Allston, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, $18 :: Advance tickets :: Win 2 tickets to the show + signed vinyl