Murray Paterson: Music from the Headland
When Needessentials launched in 2013 they did things very differently to other companies in the surf industry. Founder Ryan Scanlon, who honed his craft working for Quiksilver Wetsuits, stripped out marketing costs, tossed the frills and adornments in the bin, and passed the savings on to customers.
At the time it was a unique way to approach wetsuit manufacturing, though the idea has since been borrowed by other wetsuit companies. But I digress...
It's no surprise that a company that created a distinct style of business, also did things differently elsewhere. If you've been watching the needessentials films, you'll notice the soundtracks aren't lifted from radio, you won't have heard the songs before, but instead they've been crafted for the films.
One of the collaborators is the band HEADLAND, who, like needessentials, hail from the NSW Northern Rivers, and is led by Murray Paterson. When I put it to Murray that the needs films have propagated their own little ecosystem of surfers, filmers, musicians, and shapers, he described it as being more like a family - both literally and metaphorically.
Mid-afternoon on a Friday I tried to reach Murray, though this interview wasn't held till the following Monday.
Swellnet: I got your text message the other day, saying you were having a countery. I didn’t bother calling back; figured the weekend had already begun for you.
Murray: You can't interrupt a man's countery!
Swellnet: I wouldn’t dare. Anyway, it’s Monday now, we’re working, and I wanted to ask you about your ongoing involvement in the needs films. Who approached who in this relationship?
Murray: Well, my association really comes from a sort of family connection with Simon Jones [from Morning of the Earth Surfboards].
He's part of my extended family. We're very close friends, and he builds my surfboards too. So, through him, I got to know Ishka [Folkwell, filmer] and that led to Torren.
So we're all pretty good friends. We go surfing together, drink beer, and our girlfriends are friends. It's a real family vibe, and that includes Ryan. He lives down the road a bit, but he sort of fits in with us. I always really dug his approach to that business.
Swellnet: OK, a quick deviation: I was first made aware of your work through the soundtrack to HEADLAND - the movie that is. Can you explain to readers what that involved?
Murray: Yeah, what happened was I had old footage from Lennox Head and surrounds, my own footage, and I also collected a bunch old Super 8 footage from the '70s from friends and other people.
We used that footage for inspiration to create the music. We'd play it in the studio, project it, and then play along to it. It turned into an album, which then took on a life of its own. For some reason, I don't know why, it was very popular in Europe, especially in the UK, and so we released an album on vinyl over there, and since then we've released all our subsequent albums on vinyl in the UK.
That's how we've run HEADLAND. When we do live performance, we play along to the footage. And now, when we do needessentials stuff...say when we do live stuff for them, we show footage of Torren surfing and play along to that.
Swellnet: How is it usually received?
Murray: Oh, it's a ball-tearer.
Murray: Look, I don't know about you, but mixing music, surf footage, and beer drinking is a no-brainer - can’t fail.
Swellnet: Ha...it needs no further explainion. What about the process of conjuring up the songs for the Needs filmed? They’re all recorded bespoke, to fit the imagery. Do you look at footage Ishka has filmed then the music is created to match the footage? How does that work?
Murray: Sometimes the process goes exactly as you described. He gives us an edit, and then we come up with something for that piece, and often we do it in the studio with Ishka there, or with Ishka and Torren there, so we're talking it through...you know, “what about this feel?”
We'll play a bit of music, and they'll go, "Oh, yeah, maybe something with a bit more energy because the waves are a bit bigger in this segment," so we’ll punch in some more electric guitar. We'll work it up like that in the studio.
Other times, I look at the footage and go, "Hang on, I've got this piece of music I’ve already done that will really suit," and so we'll put it under the footage and see if it works. If it does, then we just tinker with it to make it suit the length and the sequence.
Swellnet: Either way, it's a pretty unique process. Where else would music be recorded in a similar way? I’ve seen gigs, Mr Bungle for one, The Dirty Three also, where the bands have created new songs on the spot, trying to capture an emotion, but it wasn't part of the recording process.
Murray: Yeah. I mean, people have used strategies like that, like Brian Eno did oblique strategies to make musicians play a different way, but this process, what we’re doing, is very much like surfing…
Swellnet: In what way?
Murray: It's intuitive. As the waves stands up in front of you, you respond, we respond in music, and we move with it. Yeah, the parallel is quite uncanny.
Swellnet: Sounds like an enjoyable process. Can you evolve it, take it further somehow?
Murray: Yeah, absolutely, we've made a bunch of albums now, and not just with Ishka, but with other filmmakers using footage as the inspiration for the music. And we recently did an album that wasn't associated with any particular footage, yet the music still had that oceanic feel to it. There was movement to it that sat easily over the ocean.
Stu: Is that because the process is becoming more deeply ingrained? As in, it’s allowed you to access new parts of your musical brain? Is that sounding pretentious, saying that..?
Murray: No, it's not too pretentious, but yes, it becomes a part of what we do, so when we're in the studio there’s a sense of the rhythm of the ocean.
When you start playing around with music and film, it's actually quite hard. It's harder than you imagine, getting a piece of music to sit with surfing footage. A great song doesn't automatically translate to it. There are certain things in it, but we've sat very easily with Torren's surfing because of the way he surfs, with that sense of flow and intuitive response to the wave. I don't think our music's going to sit particularly well with high performance aerial surfing.
Swellnet: Or something that's more rapid fire.
Murray: Yeah. Ours lends itself to his particular type of surfing. Helps that he’s a pretty tidy surfer too.
Swellnet: My favourite section from 'Lost Track' was the big, open-faced righthander near the end, which is clearly the high point of the film. Describe the musical process, trying to match the surfing, and do you think you achieved it?
Murray: Oh, yeah. It was certainly the climax to the film, and I think it's a really great sequence to end the film. What we had to be careful of was, it needed to be approaching epic because it was the climax of the film, but the waves weren't thunderously huge, so it didn't need outrageously epic drama. We added a few strings to it that helped give the piece a sense of atmosphere.
Yeah, I'm really pleased with how that one worked out.