Frenzal Rhomb – Pestilence, Punk Rock and…Spreadsheets?

By Josh Nixon

If Spring draws grey nomads to Floriade, and Summer sees the rev heads come for the ‘Nats, then Winter seems the time to tempt a Frenzal to Canberra.

Perhaps because, I suspect, it’s a time that Lindsay “The Dr” McDougall can take advantage of the proximity to the snow. 

Whatever the case may be, once again this winter—Friday, 21 July at The Basement to be precise—The Rhomb make their frosty pilgrimage, and there’s much to talk about with Frenzal frontman Jason “Jay” Whalley. After all, they’re charging in with a fresh batch of songs from their new full length album, The Cup of Pestilence.

The 19-tracker is now a part of what I call The Glenno Years. Sydney-via-Orange legend Glenn GlennoSmith has provided the striking illustrated cover art for three most recent albums, with …Pestilence now sharing gallery space with Smoko At The Pet Food Factory (2011) and Hi-Vis High Tea (2017). 

Glenno also plays in a band with Whalley called Chinese Burns Unit, but I digress.

It is not solely the aesthetic change that signifies The Glenno Years. There has been a significant sonic switch-up too. Said three albums saw the band make the long journey to Fort Collins, Colorado, in which they called upon the pop-punk godfather and Descendents/All founder Bill Stevenson, at his storied studio The Blasting Room.

Egalitarian Rage.

The interview found Whalley in typically fine, witty form. With the opening leg of the tour in Adelaide and Melbourne under the studded belt, Whalley is fresh off taping their guest programming of Rage. I openly wondered about the internal pecking order for how the music videos were selected.

“The method in our band is full democracy,” Whalley states. “So it was 12.5 songs each for the programming, even though it was only Lindsay and myself in the studio. So for every video that Gordy (Foreman, drums) and Dal (Michael Dallinger, bass) chose there were these extensive notes to read out.”

Egalitarian!

“Yeah, but Dal has the absolute worst taste in music ever. So while Gordy is picking Carcass, Dal is making me read out: ‘Hi I’m Jason from Frenzal Rhomb, and here’s my favourite band… Boxcar Racer’. I delivered the message like a hostage video.”

Tune in for that one!

The Glenno Years.

When I introduced the idea of The Glenno Years, Whalley was quick to interject. “Oh, so you’re about to say that you guys only started writing good songs in 2011?” 

He soon lets me off the hook. 

“It’s funny, because while people have been reacting to this new record, there’s people doing all these rankings of the entire Frenzal Rhomb catalogue. Which is very confronting.

”But then I read them and, like, 90% of them, like, yeah… you’re probably right. ‘That was a shit record, that should have been number nine…’ But there seems to be a lot of love for the last three or four records.”

This is understandable. One thing the Blasting Room process has provided is a consistently excellent production over all three records. So how did the fortuitous relationship with Bill Stevenson come to pass?

“Way back we played a bunch of shows with All,” Whalley explains. “So we sort of knew Bill, and we had heard that he had done some recordings for Bodyjar in their early stages. 

Then the No Sleep festival came up, the Descendents were playing, and we approached Bill to see if he was into working with us idiots. Turns out he was, so we booked in as soon as we could. 

“When Smoko… turned out so well, we were hooked. For a start, they make us sound much tougher than we actually are.”

Has punk rock been missing the humble spreadsheet?

I compared the production of The Glenno Years albums to the one immediately prior (Forever Malcolm Young) and put it to Whalley that, while there was a noticeable shift, the production still held up well 17 years later. The answer I got led to an unexpected revelation.

“Well, for a lot of people, that one is either their favourite or least favourite record as far as production goes. It’s rawer. It also reflects that we were trying to do everything live and record vocals in the studio with no headphones. 

“Ultimately, for me, song wise it was a bit… I dunno. Rambling, or something like that. Of course this was before we introduced the punk rock spreadsheet.”

Excuse me… The what? This needed immediate clarification.

“I’m quite open about it,” Whalley says. “We always write way too many songs for a record, so choosing the final cut was a nightmare; everyone had their favourites and opinions. As a result, the album is going to have 25 songs on it, or something ridiculous, and it’s going to be way too long.

“So we came up with the punk rock spreadsheet. We make a column with 60 or 70 songs down the side and everyone gets to vote on it, including manager Chris. Any song that gets three votes is on the record. We then see if we have half an hour of music.”

Just as my head was swirling at the possibilities, more revelations came.

“If we don’t have enough, then the wild cards come out,” Whalley reveals. “You start seeing people put in their shit song that they think is wonderful, and you know that’s when the lobbying starts. ‘I’ll vote for your shit song, but only if you vote for mine’.”

So the punk rock spreadsheet has incorporated the worst parts of political society by bringing in lobbying groups?

“Yes,” Whalley states. “This is what punk rock has been missing. I think a lot of bands are going to get on board.”

Spreadsheets, lobbying groups, band politics; it’s surely inevitable this becomes a monetised product that can be sold at a highly inflated rate?

“Absolutely,” Whalley says. “We are going to call it the FR Spreadsheet and use the Excel font on the app. It will be big. We first tried it on the Sans Souci record but it was unrefined. Now we have gone from thinking of each other: ‘These guys are idiots, I know the best five songs in a row for this record’, to politics, where everyone is only a little bit unhappy but you get 19 songs and 33 minutes on your album.”

Genius! So how many songs were entered into the punk rock spreadsheet for Cup of Pestilence?

“60 songs made it into the spreadsheet this time,” Whalley says. “While half the album was picked out pretty much straight away, we still went through the spreadsheet to work out the rest. 

“Our process is to demo every song with full intent,” he continues. “That means we work out all the vocal harmonies and play it as best we can in order to see if it’s a hit. If we discover it isn’t, the song goes into the bin.”

I had to ask – if the punk rock spreadsheet dates back to Sans Souci, and the lobbying groups fail and send two-thirds of the songs to the bin, does anyone try and recycle something from the trash for the next album?

“Lindsay is notorious for trying that, and I have no truck with it,” Whalley flatly states.

“Seriously, though, my attitude is if the song didn’t make it once, it’s not good enough. Every now and again I might work on a verse that was in the bin. But I think, as a songwriter, you always know the best songs are the ones that just all fall out in one go. They’re the keepers. If you have to really work to bring it in, it’s generally not happening.”

The lobby groups aren’t very forgiving either.

“Often, I will come in hot with ten songs that I think are the best ten songs of all time,” Whalley says. “After working through it, we are left with nine of them sucking thanks to Gordy being absolutely brutal on what works and what doesn’t.”

Warm, organic and Evertune?

The results spreadsheet and the key stakeholder control group can’t be denied. The new album sounds warm, and at first I wondered if the subtle change I was hearing was down to this being Dal Dallingers’ first album picking up the mantle from Tom Crease

Crease had to bow out of Frenzal in 2019 due to ongoing hearing problems, and Dal was Tom’s top pick. He certainly has done a hell of a job, with some absolutely ripping basslines to be enjoyed throughout the album

That wasn’t quite what I picked up in the listen, though. I discussed this with Whalley. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something in there; something a bit warmer, or organic or, to rehash an earlier comment, “tougher” sounding. Was it the bass tone?

“Well picked up on!” Whalley confirms. “As far as the bass tone sounds, it’s probably because Dal and the rest of us had nothing to do with it.”

Whalley goes on to explain.

“In the studio, Dal was like ‘I bought my bass!’ and Bill (Stevenson) was like, ‘That’s nice,” and the bass was taken away. Bill was like, ‘don’t worry we got this,’ and then another bass and amp was prepared by engineers who know the sound that’s going to work best for the album. 

“Then there was the EverTune guitars, which I’m certain are going to be the death of music.”

[Briefly, an Evertune guitar is a special bridge (the bit you put the strings in) that’s set up so it physically can’t be put out of tune]

“So, Bill and the team worked out that in a 20-day recording you waste a full day tuning guitars,” Whalley continues. “While you can make it so that you can bend the strings, the joy of playing with Lindsay is that his rhythm is a bit wild. He plays all over the place, with little signature bends and things that make it exciting. 

“So we told Bill – ‘No EverTunes’. And he sort of sighs heavily. But it’s part of the magic of the record. We get these little microtone parts that are just a little bit out and more natural.”

How long did it take Gordy to do drums?

“God, he’s such a fucking insane drummer,” Whalley enthuses. “He has a few goes at it, and he’s done. He does 18-19 songs in a day and then sets his mind to his real goal of drinking for the other 21 days in the studio. 

“Which was good because it allowed me the time to focus on all the three-part vocal harmonies that I had spent so much time on in pre production.”

With the album out and the shows underway, what’s to look forward to?

“For me, the best part of this tour is getting to play with The Meanies for 15 weeks in a row,” Whaley beams. “They’re a hugely influential band for me. In fact, the worst insult Link (Meanies vocalist) ever dropped on me was that Frenzal Rhomb sound nothing like The Meanies. “But this is all I have ever tried to do!” Whalley laughs. 

“They are in career best form off of their last album, which I think is their best album. They’ve morphed from the frantic punk of the ‘90s to this almost garage rock thing, and it’s still so exciting to see them.”

There’s plenty for fans young and old when Frenzal Rhomb make mayhem with The Meanies at The Basement on Friday, 21 July for The Cup Of Pestilence album launch. Tickets are $59.90 via OzTix.

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