Australian cult power pop singer-songwriter John Dowler, best remembered for his groups Young Modern and the Zimmermen (and their classic 1985 single "Don't Go to Sydney"), returns with his current outfit. The new album 12 STITCHES includes ten new band originals that combine melody, invention and wry humour with compacted guitars and drums, as well as a Brian Wilson tune and stunning interpretation of Split Enz's 1975 classic "Time for A Change".
Half A Cow is proud to present the second album by John Dowler's Vanity Project entitled 12 Stiches. To be released May 1, digitally and on CD, the album is the second by the Melbourne-based vehicle for singer and songwriter John Dowler, a man who was a key figure in Australia's alternative rock'n'roll scene of the '70s and '80s. The Vanity Project are a culmination of his previous work, one that touches on the art-pop rock of the first band Spare Change and the pub folk-rock of his '80s band the Zimmermen, with the melodic pop rock/power pop of his late '70s band-most-likely, Young Modern, at its heart.
John Dowler began his Vanity Project in 2014. They've played every so often in small inner-city Melbourne pubs ever since. They've evolved into something very special, quite possibly Dowler's finest project.
Key to the band are the two guitarists. Mark McCartney first played with Dowler some years back in a regrouping of the Glory Boys and has also worked with the likes of Mick Thomas and Barb Waters. When it's time for them to do "Don't Go to Sydney" at their shows, he picks up an electric 12-string - something that was lacking from the original - and helps make this group's version the definitive one. Justin Bowd has played with Cinema, Jim Kane and with Middle Age Fanclub, and has contributed a handful of fine tunes to the new group.
The two guitarists play Gretsch's and play as loudly as small rooms will allow, cutting the jangle with some grunt and noise. Drummer Michael Stranges, who has also worked with Kim Salmon, drives with a light touch and punctuates perfectly, and new bass player Stephen O'Prey underpins things sweetly, helping to keep everything aloft; he's busy but never over plays. Dowler's voice, wry and mellifluous, has aged incredibly well, and is immediately recognisable.
A harder sounding and more diverse release than the first album, 12 Stitches covers the full breadth of Dowler's musical inclinations and his emotional responses to the beating the world constantly deals us all. If "Time to Leave" and "Work of Art" are the man at his melodic and pithy best, "Fucked If I Know" is perhaps the kind of sardonic overload he's always promised. It's a lot of fun. Taking a harder turn, 'Centipede" and "The Next Voice You'll Hear" have the kind of darkness and wit you'd hear on a '70s John Cale or Lou Reed record. "Stranges in the Night", a playfully stomping glam ode to their drummer, is lighter and it rocks. Bowd's "Free of Wine" and "Billy's Pizza" are pensive (verging on desolate) character profiles with an open strumminess that brings back memories of the Zimmermen. A plaintive cover of long time Dowler hero Brian Wilson's "That's Not Me'" is a gutsy move that pays off; an unexpected version of "Time for A Change", a Phil Judd tune from Split Enz's 1975 debut Mental Notes even more so. With guitars replacing the spare piano accompaniment of the original, and McCartney unwinding a wicked fragmented solo, it perhaps echoes another Dowler fave, Big Star's Sister Lovers album, and John replaces Tim Finn's arch indifference – which is usually one of his default settings – with something a little more angsty. There's more and it's all good. In an age awash with sound bites, single track downloads and "curated" playlists, it's an album that demands to be listened to from beginning to end.
Throughout the whole record, you'll hear something of that sound that Adrian Ryan was talking about back in 1981. "Jangling guitars, a passionate beat, allusions to something half forgotten." It's all there. And more. If you've ever enjoyed John Dowler's music before, you'll love this album. If you haven't, but like the idea of that soulful jangling sound, 12 Stitches has it in spades.
Question: How would you describe your music?
John Dowler : Post-rock guitar rock with an overlay of pre-millennial irony.
Question: Can you tell us about 12 Stitches?
John Dowler : 12 Stitches came together rather quickly when we learned our drummer was planning to move to Europe for an indeterminate length of time. We recorded the rhythm tracks to 15 songs in a day and a half last April, then completed the album over the next six months. It consists of ten originals and two covers versions of band favourites.
Question: Do you prefer performing live or recording?
John Dowler : I LOVE live performing most of all. The sense of immediacy and the interaction with a live audience is hard to beat. On the other hand, while the recording process is sometimes less enjoyable, the end result provides its own reward.
Question: How did the band come together?
John Dowler : In 2014, a chance meeting with Mark McCartney, a musician I had played with some years previously, resulted in us forming the Vanity Project. Mark was responsible for recruiting the other members of the band.
Question: If you could have anyone, in the world, attend a show, who would it be?
John Dowler : Elon Musk.
Question: Which music/artists are you currently listening to?
John Dowler : Fiona Apple (her new album "Fetch the Bolt Cutters") and Maria McKee (her new album "La Vita Nuova").
Question: What is the biggest challenge you have faced along the way to your musical success?
John Dowler : Staying true to my musical vision in the face of diminished commercial success.
Question: What's a typical day like during COVID19?
John Dowler : There has been very little change to my daily routine since the advent of the pandemic. I live on a 5 acre property in the foothills of the Dandenongs with my wife, two horses, a cat and a dog. We are pretty self-sufficient and don't do much socialising other than interactions with the rest of the band. My wife says I've been self-isolating for years.
Question: What has been your favourite part of becoming a music artist?
John Dowler : The long, slow but inexorable rise to the top. And being known as a power pop is great.
Question: What's next, for you?
John Dowler : The spread of the COVID-19 virus has meant that we're unable to go ahead with planned launches in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. The band can't even rehearse until social distancing restrictions have been lifted. In the meantime there are new songs to write and more interviews to give...
Question: Can you share your socials? (links please)
John Dowler : Facebook
Interview by Gwen van Montfort