The brainchild of drummer, composer and manager Jeremy Schiftan, Echo Drama is a project that, in keeping with its unique, genre-bending sound, has a long and intricate history. Beginning as an idea for an innovative group that would transcend the existing Melbourne music scene whilst also carving out its niche within it, the band features nine members, complete with saxophone, trumpet, trombone and an inspired dual-vocalist dynamic comprised of singer Thando and MC Alex ‘Sinks’ Sinclair. With a sound built on contrast, collaboration, and enduring vision, Echo Drama’s debut album ‘Before it All Ends’, a groove-inducing blend of soul and reggae topped with pop production and a hip-hop flair brought by Sinks, is a testament to the dedication and intuition of a band years in the making.
We sat down with founder Jeremy for a chat about their journey, their debut album, and playing WOMADelaide in March.
You started Echo Drama, tell us about that process.
I guess it was almost nine years ago now that I had the idea. Pretty much it was inspired by the bands that I was listening to, that I liked. I was playing in other bands, and always on the look out for something that sounded like this band that I thought I wanted to play in. There aren’t many bands that do it, and the bands that do are established so they don’t need a drummer. So I decided to get proactive and create an opportunity for myself. I already played guitar, and dabbled in writing music but not a lot, so I decided to go a lot deeper into that, to write my own songs, and just to find people that liked what I was doing enough to be part of a group and form something with me. That process was a lot harder than I could have ever imagined. I was a lot younger, and I was like ‘yeah I’m sure this won’t be too tough, I’ll just find someone who plays this and someone who plays that and it will all come together’. So that took me pretty much one to two years, really, to put together a group… I met a lot of different musicians before it stuck.
How old were you then, when you were starting Echo Drama?
I guess I was around 22 or 23. And now I’m in my 30s.
Wow, that is fairly young to organise such a big project.
Yeah, well it was probably quite ambitious at the time. Probably the reason I did it was that I was so young and naïve, and I just didn’t think it would be that hard. I think with what I’ve learnt from life now I might think twice before embarking on such a ginormous project.
So how did you meet the other members of Echo Drama? Did you already know some of them?
The first person I met, who in fact is one of the few members who still to this day is one of the original members, because we have gone through so many people, was the keyboard player Steve Phillips. He’s been there since the beginning. I met him at a gig, he was playing in a band who were occasionally gigging around Melbourne, and I knew the drummer from that band. I was talking to him about putting my thing together, and he said I should check out their keyboard player Steve who was looking for more things to do. So I met him at that gig, and from there we met a few bass players through an ad online before we found someone we wanted. So, yeah there were a few ads online; a mixture between people I was going out and meeting at shows, people I’d played with in the past, and then recommendations of friends of friends.
How did the dynamic of having two vocalists, Thando and Sinks, come together?
One of the main ideas I had for the band to begin with was two vocalists; one MC bringing the hip-hop component of the band, and then someone who was more of a reggae singer or a soul singer or an R&B singer. A really early version of the band that came together actually had a female MC and a male singer, but that never really got there. That was under a different name, and we played like one show that feels like a lifetime ago, but that was almost the version of the band that happened. So yeah, from the beginning starting out to create the band the two vocalists with contrasting styles was always something that underpinned my vision. Then I met Sinks through a saxophone player I used to play in another band with and instantly loved what he did. I heard demos of things he was recording with his solo stuff, and I thought okay now that I’ve got him I’m going to need a singer that contrasts with that, and so then I started looking more into female vocalists to really contrast what he was doing. I don’t even know how many singers we auditioned before we took Thando. Thando had just moved to Melbourne from Canberra. She was super young – I think she had just turned 18 or 19. She tells me that I was one of the first musicians she met here because she had only been here a few weeks. Her inexperience at the time was almost… we were like I don’t know, she hasn’t really done anything, she’s so young, but her talent was there and she was so enthusiastic so I said let’s do it! And that’s how we got those two vocalists.
Thando has her own solo career now, how do you balance that with the band?
Look, at the time when she joined the band she was doing nothing else, and hadn’t really done anything else. She was pretty much out of high school, and loved music, and obviously had been singing her whole life, but hadn’t really had a career. Maybe a few years into the band she decided to start performing under her own name, which is something I guess I always knew was a possibility – vocalists are notorious for it, and one of the leading reasons I’ve seen for most bands to split up in the scene is vocalists going solo. It’s something that happens in the wider music world as well. For a while the solo thing, as it was new, wasn’t really an impediment to the organisation of the band, but as it grew and grew it definitely became a juggling act, and in fact to the point that Thando actually left the band for about one and a half, to two, years to focus on her solo career. It was a decision she made, and it was a period where we had another lead singer, for quite a while, and we did quite a lot of work with that other lead singer May Parley. When we had May on board we started writing half of this album, and we were doing a lot of festival appearances and a lot of residencies, so a really busy part of our live career was actually not with Thando on vocals. But eventually May went her own way, and we were at a crossroads going: ‘well, do we still want to keep going with this band, and if so who is going to fill this lead singer spot?’ It’s tough to keep reinventing yourself, and we were all on great terms with Thando, so I spoke to her again and said where are you up to with your own work right now, and do you have time in your life to do both again, and she jumped at it. She was like ‘100%, I’ve gone off and done a lot of the things I’ve wanted to do, and I totally have room to fit this in with my work.’ And she came back on board.
So when was this interim period?
That was, I think, 2014/2015? Maybe even into 2016. It was January 2016 when Thando came back. We were towards the end of recording our album, we had all the music down and we hadn’t done our vocals because there were a lot of questions about who was actually going to be singing on the album.
Right, so that’s quite an interesting transition. As you say, that would have been one of the most important parts of your progression as a band.
Yeah, the vocalist sounding was definitely a big thing. I mean I guess Sinks was a permanent thing, so he was there, and we knew what it could sound like – we had written a lot of music with Thando, and also with May. So we knew what we sounded like, and it was about who was going to come in and still sound like we sound, and eventually that ended up being Thando again.
In the process of recording your debut album, did it ever get messy having nine members in the studio?
I’d say kind of… but the most difficult part probably wasn’t even the fact that it was nine members to juggle. It was just that my process of recording, and how I wanted the album to sound, was heavily produced. I wanted it to sound almost like a pop album rather than a live representation of the band, so there was a lot of layering, a lot of microphones, different studios, a lot of different engineers; even a lot of different session players came in too. There were a lot of musicians on that album, a lot more than nine, probably almost double that, so it was a really complicated recording process and it stretched out almost three years. So messy definitely, but the number of people wasn’t necessarily the main complication. I think it was just that some of the songs on the album had 120 or 130 tracks in Pro Tools sessions that we had to then condense. Some computers don’t even open that many tracks in Pro Tools. In retrospect it was overkill, and I wouldn’t record an album that way again in a hurry, but it was the way I wanted to do it and at that time some of the engineers I worked with shared that idea, so once we started doing it that way we kept going that way, but it got exponentially more difficult as we added more and more parts.
Echo Drama gets described as ‘genre-bending’, do you think your sound has evolved from what you thought it would be when you first came up with the idea for the band to what it is now, having released your debut album?
That’s a really good question. I actually don’t know if I’ve had to answer this before, because I’m thinking and my answer is no, I don’t really think it has changed so much. In many ways this album sounds like the album I wanted to make, you know, nine or ten years ago when I first had the idea. I think my idea for the band was pretty concrete, I kind of knew what I wanted to do and have just been really working towards it all these years. Slight changes of course, and you meet people along the way, new music comes out and music evolves within your scene and outside of your scene, but overall I stayed pretty true to this core idea I had. A lot of the songs on the album are actually songs I wrote years and years ago, and refined slightly, but I listen to early demos of them and they don’t sound that different to how they turned out on the album. I wrote some of these songs in 2011, 2012 and now they’re just kind of in their fullest form I suppose.
That’s quite a feat to stay true to that vision for the whole nine years.
Yeah I actually think that’s one of the things that is quite particular about echo drama. We met a lot of bands over the years that we played gigs with and studied music with, and I think a lot of people – without dissing other people – have ideas that kind of come and go, which I think is also a valid approach. You get a bit of a vision, get a group together, play a few shows, make a record or a single or an EP and go ‘cool, mad.’ But this band has kind of endured. We’ve seen a lot of people come and go in the time that we’ve stayed as a group, and we’ve stayed pretty consistent with the kind of music we make. We haven’t really pushed and pulled with trends so much, and have just kind of always made what we made and not felt the need to change it for whatever seems cool or popular at the time. That’s how I wanted it to sound and that’s always what I wanted from it, so I didn’t feel the need to try and change it.
You won Best Reggae and Dance Hall Act at The Music Victoria Awards late last year. How did it feel to get that kind of recognition for your music that has been so long in the making?
That was a career highlight, I think for me and for everyone in the band. Most of us were able to attend the ceremony, and it was a really nice night to share with the group, because as much as I’ve talked about all my work and my vision, ultimately there still are other people who have played this music with me for all these years and who have all bought their own unique and immense talent to the group, and who put in work. It was a really nice night for us all to feel pretty united in what we have achieved. A few people couldn’t make it, we weren’t all nine of us, I think it was six of us. We had the best time, and from the second we arrived there was a buzz there. It was a great event and we started getting pretty excited as we walked in that door and as we are hearing the first few categories called out we’re like, you know, ‘what if we actually get our name called? This could be a thing!’ And as it happened it was a pretty surreal moment, we all looked at each other pretty ecstatic, walked up, accepted the award, and then for the rest of the night we were on a bit of a high, kind of reminiscing about the things we’ve done over the years and feeling grateful for the times we’ve shared. It feels like a nice punctuation point after all those years of work towards something, just like working and working, to know people have listened to this and people have liked it, and this is good and this is worthy of acknowledgement. So, yeah, it was awesome.
You’re playing WOMADelaide this year, have you ever played the festival before?
This is the first time, I’ve never even attended it, so pretty excited.
You’ve played quite a few festivals, do you still have any on the bucket list?
You know, I think WOMAD was pretty up there. As far as Australian festivals go it’s so well respected and it’s notoriously well organised and so professionally put together. We’ve done a lot of really fun festivals, a lot of almost bush doofs and regional parties, which are heaps of fun but a certain kind of tier of festival, whereas WOMAD has that kind of prestige, and it transcends local music. It is a world festival and it feels like it’s internationally recognised, so that was definitely one right up there. Another big one for us would be Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, which we’ve almost ended up playing a couple of times before but it has never quite happened, so to do that one day would be really nice too. But WOMAD is a big one, and we were pretty excited. This was one by invitation as well, so that felt like a real honour to be contacted out of the blue and invited to such a respected event.
Any other plans for 2020?
For the moment not a lot planned, I think it has been a long road for the band: solo careers of individual members pretty busy, years of work went into that album which was just the goal for so long, and so even last year was a much quieter year for us as a performing group. The award came along which was nice and we did a couple of things last year, and the album launch last year was the real big deal for us. So for the next year still not sure… with not much happening between now and [WOMADelaide] it will be a good chance to all catch up again, and then from there see what we want to do amongst everyone’s busy schedules. I mean everyone also went and got families in the last couple of years, there are several people in the band with babies now, so there is a lot to juggle, and after all these years working out what everyone’s priorities are… that has evolved. Even if the music has stayed pretty core, changing lives has been an interesting thing to watch happen within the group.
Good luck with WOMADelaide, and thank you for talking to us!
WOMADelaide 2020 will be held from 6-9 March in Adelaide, South Australia. Tickets can be purchased www.womadelaide.com.au
Written by Olivia Hurley