‘I’ve become a lot more methodical’: Talking Tech with Harvey Sutherland

When it comes to contemporary disco and funk-laced grooves there are few names that spring to mind as quickly as Harvey Sutherland’s. For almost a decade the Melbourne-based synth whizz has been steadily mining works of pure gold, skillfully arranged to deliver a heavy dose of infectious melodies and carefree cool. 

His distinctive flavour is born out of an equally distinct approach, pairing meticulousness with spontaneity. He tells us how he’s become “a lot more methodical in the past year or so” but strives and labours over “raw, instinctive creases”. A head-spinning recipe that’s led him to serve up what he’s coined as “neurotic funk”. It’s in his long-awaited debut album, Boy, that this sound is fully fleshed out, giving us boundless iterations of funk.

The release is a testament to the lengths Havery Sutherland has gone in the quest to pin down his sound. Journeying through the full kaleidoscopic prism of funk and exploring his path towards it, Boy feels as personal as it is expansive. Off the back of the album he gives us a tour of his dimly lit studio and dives into the workings behind his sound.

Boy is out now on House Anxiety.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music? 

I inherited a bunch of odds and ends from my dad’s best friend who sadly passed away. He was a guitarist and hobby songwriter, but used to play in bands when he was younger — my dad was the gig photographer. There was a multi-effects pedal and a little interface — I took those and combined them with a Yamaha Portasound I found at the Camberwell Market and started noodling. I didn’t really have any idea how to connect everything properly, so it was mostly recording to cassette with my hifi before I learned how to use the interface. 

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

It was a Nord Electro lol. I was playing keyboards in a few bands, and wanted some decent sounds that my Yamaha wasn’t really achieving. The Nord Electro Rhodes patch is a sound of its own. 

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components? Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

Swimming Pool Studio is three separate spaces — the big live room, where a lot of the instruments and synths live, a control room with a 32 channel console and a bunch of preamps and outboard, and the front room which is more of a low-key production space and work area. It’s been a working recording studio since 1979, but we’ve repurposed it for more modern production-based work, so any one of the three spaces can be used independently. I’ve shared it with Phil Gionfriddo and Graeme Pogson for about 6 years, working on our own projects and lots of recording & production for other folks too. 

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

It’s organised chaos in here. Everyone has a slightly different workflow, so it’s hard to find a system everyone agrees on. I’ve spent a bit of time setting up patchbays and labelling things as best as possible, and we’ve got some nice coloured LED strips to set the mood. I also brought in a coffee machine, which is probably the best thing I could have done for productivity. We also just got the internet about a year ago, which possibly negates it. 

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

We adopted the studio from The Drones / Tropical Fuck Storm crew, and kept a lot of the existing layout but just replaced it with our gear. I’ve definitely accumulated a heap since moving in here, but mostly utilitarian stuff like microphones, power conditioners, cabling etc. Electrical Audio is always an aspirational goal, but our spot probably has more in common with the DIY jankiness of Daptone or Black Ark. It’s by no means perfect — we’re not doing any high-end classical recordings here — but it has an energy and a comfort that people seem to really enjoy, it’s a relaxing place to work. 

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change? 

A few lightbulbs. And probably the thick red curtains  — they’re a bit intense when you spend 14 hours a day in here. 

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

I really love my Helpinstill piano, it’s a weird little unit and doesn’t really sound like anything else. Very reactive, pingy little piano that just feels like pop music.

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets? 

They’re pretty separate setups now — the Juno doesn’t get much of a run in the studio anymore, and I’ve got all my main bits of live kit on a dedicated pedalboard. I’ve brought more players into the band, so I get to be more of a keyboard player and bandleader than worrying whether I brought the right USB cable from the studio rig! 

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

If I’m writing or recording with someone, I’ll always make sure the fridge is stocked and coffee is on. It goes a long way to keep things propulsive. 

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

Recently I’ve been working towards particular ideas and sketches, so I kinda know what needs to happen next. I’ve become a lot more methodical in the past year or so, way less stuffing around making 8 bar loops and much more focused. Getting tunes arranged and ideas fleshed out is the name of the game now. 

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

I love raw, instinctive creases, and I will often labour over making sure there’s enough of them. 

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writer’s block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

I built an afternoon nap into my pandemic working-from-home routine, and I’m finding it hard to shake that even now I’m back in the studio. 

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

I’m putting on a pretty adventurous show in Melbourne for an arts festival called RISING. We’re doing a full in-the-round, surround sound Harvey Sutherland gig, with some amazing visuals and lighting in a beautiful concert hall usually reserved for far more…reserved music…it should be a riot. 

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