Bond Street Bridge’s debut album comes highly recommended, a showcase for some real talent and fascinating musicianship. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM discusses its making with Sam Prebble.

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Bond Street Bridge: The Mapmaker’s Art

AUCKLAND’s Bond Street Bridge is a loose collective of musicians, but can mainly be attributed as the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Sam Prebble. The classically trained violinist recorded Bond Street Bridge’s debut album, The Mapmaker’s Art on one microphone and a laptop, merging acoustic instruments with electronic glitches. The result is a wonderfully textured and unpredictable piece of work. The Mapmaker’s Art is an idiosyncratic album, one with beautiful lyrics, startling melodies, and a restless tone.

Prebble got his introduction into music through the violin. He admits that “the early background was all classical.” Prebble managed to stick with the violin throughout his childhood, an instrument that many people eschew for the sexier instruments in their adolescence. Prebble played “through various different kinds of groups. I played with Nova Strings, which is a string orchestra in the Hutt. There was a period in high school when I didn’t play that much.” This background helps the use of the strings in the album, which is unconventional and attention-grabbing, particular given the insipid nature of strings in most other albums. “I think that it’s probably because I’ve got that orchestral background. I’ve done a bit of string arranging for other people. A lot of that is from listening to people like Beck – Sea Change, the strings on that is incredible. That busted open the string pop dynamic. Street Hassle by Lou Reed. Using the strings as a kind of a lead instrument, I really like that.”

Prebble has been playing music for some time now; however this is the first album under the Bond Street Bridge moniker. “It was originally a sort of solo songwriter thing a few years ago. I just used my own name then. Mostly it was just with a guitar which was a bit boring. I got a three piece band and it was really pretty acoustic roots-y, central European stuff.” However the personnel proved nomadic, and Prebble himself moved to Melbourne. “Then I came back, and it was easier doing it solo.” However, Prebble made sure he didn’t use his own name to publicise his music. “I just called it the Bond Street Bridge because I liked the alliteration. I didn’t want to use my own name. It gives it more of an open-ending kind of thing so I have the option of sticking more people in. But there’s really a lot of connection to the major piece of infrastructure down the road.”

Part of the rationale for using a de-personalised name is to move away from singer-songwriter clichés. “There’s a big incentive to do that. I don’t really like a lot of that kind of singer-songwriter. This is a huge generalization – a lot of them, it’s quite hard to listen to. I play in a couple of other bands, and there are a lot of disgruntled singer-songwriter projects.” However, he admits “I really do like the solo artists like Pumice and Bachelorette and New Buffalo who create more of a project with their work.”

The album was created with a minimum of fuss, Prebble recording and producing himself on his laptop. “It was kind of annoying. I spent a few months fighting with my laptop, having equipment not-talking-to-each-other issues. It’s all done with Logic 5.5 on even a PC laptop. Not a Mac. My god! It was the first time I’d done that. I’d done a bit of engineering on Reb [Fountain’s Bandits’] last album.” This meant he had a lot of creative control, a process which can be potentially difficult for artists to control. “It was awesome! I did have to grab a few people, particular from other bands, and get them to be critical. Because I wasn’t working with a band, I didn’t have people around being critical. My partner was great. I wasn’t in complete isolation.” This also meant he had to be pretty ruthless in the editing process. “I think probably what you got there is ten percent of what I recorded. It’s pretty stripped back from the grandiose arrangements I had back there. I really enjoyed it. It was really nice to do it on my own time and not be thinking ‘I’m paying sixty bucks an hour’ for studio time.”

The album has no drumming, a conscious choice for Prebble, who instead utilises electronic beats and miscellaneous noises. “It was [a conscious choice]. One, I can’t play the drums, and two, one of the major pitfalls is when artists start using things like bongos and congas and things like that. Thirdly, I realised that live drum kits are really hard to mix. I had an idea I wanted to mix it myself so I’d make it easier for myself. In a way, it was making it easier for myself. Also, I really liked that sort of combination of electronic and acoustic stuff – Bachelorette, Bjork, New Buffalo, Thom Yorke, using the sounds as beats, rather than particular instruments. Having said that, there is some percussion on the album, and some of the things that sound like electronic sounds are wine glasses and boxes being hit. It was an aesthetic decision to be more of an electronic sound. I like that.”

There’s a nomadic feel to the album, ironic for an album that was produced in such a solitary, fixed kind of way. There seems to be that tension in the lyrics too – Prebble sings about “stagnant puddles”, “dust on shoes”. “I guess there was. When I was writing a lot of the songs, I was living in Auckland and not really liking it that much. There was that kind of ‘wanting to move away’ kind of songs. When I got around to recording it, I’d been in Melbourne for six months, and I’d been back in Auckland and kinda liked it.”

The album contains some wonderful imagery, and Prebble adopts a number of personas. Prebble, for example, on his MySpace page writes that his songs are about the sea, but “the more murderous, drowny parts.” “I don’t write songs to get in touch with my feelings or whatever. Even though a lot of songs are in the first person, they’re not about me, mostly they’re characters. What I mostly want to do is tell stories like a novelist, rather than an autobiographer. I tend to find other people more interesting than me. In a way it’s a reaction to the celebrity that surrounds a lot of people’s work. I usually like the work, but I don’t like hearing about the people.” I ask if this makes it difficult to maintain coherence, something which this album manages to successfully have. “It’s hard to maintain a sense of coherence in my day to day life. One of the things that is quite rewarding about song-writing as opposed to writing novels, is that you can be quite ambiguous. It’s almost a virtue to be ambiguous rather than be straightforward. Any kind of incoherency can be explained away under that heading.”

Prebble thanks the late Hone Tuwhare and Leonard Cohen in the credits to his lyrics. He also mentions that figures such as Ursula Le Guin have influenced his poetic sensibility. “She really manages to evoke a sort of nostalgia that never really exists. Her writing I really like. Kurt Vonnegut as well, the way he uses sparse and quite short passages that don’t always relate to each other in an immediate sense. Of course in a wider sense they do, that’s his genius. They don’t appear to be related in the narrative way.” He’s also taken influence from songwriters like Thom Yorke. “The way he uses repeated phrases and word association. And Michael Stipe, who I think is a very underrated songwriter, particularly his ‘80s stuff, free associating, linking concepts in a less obvious way.”

Prebble is also not only a solo musician – he’s part of a number of other bands, and has contributed on other albums (or double mini-albums, such as the very good White Swan, Black Swan release). He’s also a political science tutor at Auckland University, doing his masters, and learning Maori. I imagine the self-recording process would have assisted in the juggling of all this, however, it must be rather time-consuming doing all this. “In a way it’s quite healthy because I don’t want to get obsessed with one thing. Particularly I think it’s good to be able to move between different, I don’t want to say communities, but you can get unhealthily obsessed with one part of your life.” He’s about to embark on a bit of touring, and he has some more music projects being lined up. “For the next project, I’m doing this song cycle, which me and my partner are working on. She’s an illustrator, she’s doing some prints to illustrate some songs about a set of characters.” However, the Bond Street Bridge debut album comes highly recommended, an idiosyncratic and fascinating piece of music that showcases some real talent and fascinating musicianship.