Mike Noga is a man on a mission, a mission to save his music from the monotonous drone of the self-assessing solo album. Having previously released solo albums Folk Songs and The Balladeer Hunter, which were largely introspective tales on Noga’s own life, he was keen to break the mould. Having returned from London last year, he came back to Melbourne via Sydney and decided to take on the biggest challenge of his musical career, the concept album.
“My last couple of records were folky, pretty personal and straightforward, and I liked the idea of writing through someone else’s eyes and tell a story that has nothing to do with me.” Noga admits to being ‘no spring chicken,’ feeling that it was time to diversify his music. His third offering, King, certainly offers diversity, but not just that. It is an album rich with ideas, crisp production and a testament to Noga’s fine songwriting capabilities. On a dreary winter’s night, I caught up with him at a pub hidden away in the back streets of Fitzroy to discuss the album at length.
Whilst living in London, Noga happened upon an immersive theatre company, Punch Drunk, who performed an interactive version of Woyzeck, an old German stage play written by George Buchner in the early 1800’s. “It’s been adapted by heaps of people over the years, Tim Rogers was in a production of it here, Tom Waits has done an interpretation album of it too, it’s a pretty famous play,” explains Noga. Woyzeck itself is easily adaptable to any setting; “Guy and girl get together, guy gets really jealous, goes insane and kills her, that’s the general vibe,” says Noga, who was so affected by the grim story arch and disagreeable characters, he couldn’t help but involve himself in any way he could.
He submitted an instrumental track to Theatre Company, which they used, and then from that point Noga had decided why not try his own hand at retelling the story through the medium of a rock album. “I shifted the story to 1950’s small town Australia. My version is about a couple called Jack and Mary and things aren’t going very well, they’re a down and out couple, bogans almost.” Buchner died before he was able to finish writing Woyzeck, and now the play’s end is up to the imagination of whoever intends to try their hand at it.
“My version actually has two endings, it can be interpreted either way.” Noga explains that in his interpretation every song on the album, except the last song, is just a part of Jack’s imagination and that the last song ends with everything being ok and they end up together again. The other interpretation is the reverse, making for a much more depressing account of events with the final song being a dream that Jack has rather than a happy ending. “It’s up to the listener to decide,” says Noga.
For King, Noga now had the ideas, but he needed something more, with his vision already at a grandiose level he decided to enlist the help of someone special to narrate the story. “It became apparent while we were recording that while I know what’s happening in each song here but it’s pretty surreal and the listeners might not know what’s going on so I thought maybe I need a narrator.” Noga quickly realised that the man for the job was actor Noah Taylor. “His voice is just perfect. He’s got that thick Australian accent that sounds real authentic that can also be quite menacing at times.” Having gotten to know Taylor whilst playing in The Drones, Noga sent a few emails to the actor, currently living in England. “He said he’d do it,” Noga recalls. “So I sent him what I wanted but I didn’t hear back from him for a couple of months until one day I had about fifty emails from him, with ten different versions of each part.”
Another of those to aid Noga in his efforts was his old friend Paul Dempsey. With the Something For Kate front man behind the mixing desk, King could have come across with a cleaner tone to the album’s underbelly, something Noga was acutely aware of. “I made it clear to Paul that I wanted it to sound pretty fucked up in places, not too polished.” But Noga saw beyond his own ideas and trusted Dempsey; “He’s really good on the tech side of things and also our songwriting is so different, mine’s kind of loose and he’d be my personal screwdriver helping me tighten up my songs.”
From his own perspective, this is Noga’s biggest work to date; it was a constant journey from theatre companies in London, emails from movie stars and collaboration with old friends. But at the heart of it all is a story, an old German play told through the songs of an Australian singer and songwriter about a dysfunctional couple. It might be totally left of centre, something too weird for mainstream Australia to digest, but there certainly won’t be anything monotonous about this release.
King is out now via Cooking Vinyl Australia. Noga is heading out on tour later this month. For more details, visit the Cooking Vinyl Australia website.