Wayne Flask visits folk band Stalko but doesn’t get to see the fairies. (Manic November 2010). Read PDF version here.
Nerds, they don’t make them like they used to. A hundred yards or so away from me, basking in the unexpected sunshine of an otherwise hungover, heavy headed Saturday morning, the slim figure of violinist Chris Cini can be seen firing multiple phonecalls. Two, to be precise. The recipients are the other two thirds of Stalko, vocalist/pianist/jack-of-many-trades Tim Ellis and vocalist/acoustic guitarist Michael Stivala, who are nowhere to be seen leaving Chris to handle the niceties and gain some time while reinforcements arrive. (As he anticipates with the sneaky surefootedness of horse race riggers, Tim is the last one to arrive. Replying to my SMS with a tongue-in-cheek “Rockstars are always late” he scores another point in a long standing slanging match about his punctuality).
They’ve been rather ungenerously branded as “Sissy Folk” by a loudmouthed punk artist some time ago, although in these first few minutes of our chat I see nothing remotely effeminate, or nerdy for that matter. Stalko are a relatively new act for Malta: new, because they only formed in the summer of 2009 and already have an array of songs that wouldn’t look untidy on an album; and because, in the flurry of pseudo-indie rock lazily proposed by roughly 80% of our bands, Stalko’s inspired orchestrations stem from a love of country folk, painstaking attention to detail and a streak of discipline longer than the equator. And, thankfully, despite their emergence seems too well timed with the international (mostly American) resurgence in “modern” folk and its visions of rolling plains and haystacks, none of them has taken up the Neanderthal habit of growing a forest of facial hair.
Despite all of them enduring separate late nights out, they are in a talkative mood, especially Tim and Chris, the founders of this atypical trio. “Timmy and I had been playing together in the Du theatre troupe, we did the soundtracks to contemporary plays, a lot of incidental music. It wasn’t what you’d call a musical, we learnt a lot from that. Eventually we started introducing new instruments like the euphonium, the accordion… and yes we sort of clicked well together,” debuts Chris.
“I thought he was a dick when I first saw him,” sniggers Tim.
Chris grimaces, then smiles, as though holding back his retort. “We had spoken about getting into a band but we weren’t quite sure what band we wanted. I was thinking of something that would resemble Arcade Fire. Eventually last summer we started rehearsing, agreeing to do it regularly.” As yet unnamed, the two set about honing their sound, acknowledging their styles were different although that would not impede their songwriting. Eventually, they sought a third member, someone who could play guitar and sing. Tim confesses he wanted a female to do the job.
Mike blushes. “That means yes, you did well,” says Tim laughing at his bandmate. “No, seriously, I was looking more at a country folk setup. He didn’t say much at the beginning, mostly because Chris and I would always be arguing about something. Many people liken us to a married couple.”
The name Stalko, too, is shrouded in a veil of mystery. Pressed for time by Hairyamp’s Jean Zammit to come up with a name for their debut gig in February (in support of Adem), they first thought of The Cetta Experience (“ridiculous”) before Tim delved into the Grandiloquent Dictionary, a collection of archaic English words from which he shortlisted a score of potential names. “I liked Stalko a lot. In old times a stalko was a foreign pauper who would pose as a rich person. I liked it… it sounds a bit like “stalker” y’know. And aside from that we have quite a few people like that in Malta…”
“You’re going to start off a polemic,” interjects Chris.
“Am I? Well in a way it’s a cool name. It’s easy to remember. Google Stalko and we’re up first. Today you Google famous bands like The National and you end up in National Geographic. Names really stick even if they’re stupid. Imagine Coldplay, what is Coldplay?”
While their creative flow seems to be set to maximum (the band penned their goosebump inducing epic Two on their first meeting) they are one of very few acts outside of Eurovision who farm their lyrics out to a “resident wordsmith,” Simone Spiteri, with whom they had worked at Du.
“It’s not that we can’t write lyrics, we all can write, even though I personally hate it. Right now we write the music and send it to her with the vocal line and some gibberish, and she manages to… well if you read the lyrics, they’re not mine and I can say they’re very good,” says Tim.
“It gives you an edge, because when you’re singing a melody line you tend to repeat a bit. When Simone does it she gives our songs a different dimension. She purposely puts in little accents that make the words sound nicer. I think out of 12 songs we looked at 10 and went, fantastic.”
Their first unofficial “single,” and best known track, Lady Laundry, was written in Maltese first and then translated to a smoother English version. For now, however, the songwriting approach seems to work well for the band who have the luxury of focusing their efforts on perfecting their sound.
While earlier tracks point to a folk root, the newer material recorded under the watchful eye of David Vella at Temple Studios takes them to more elaborate playing fields, where various instruments seamlessly exchange leading roles in an intricate, lofty interplay cushioned by Tim’s vocals. A bit grand, definitely expansive compared to their first offerings, as if Sigur Ros were transplanted into Alabama (or whereabouts).
“I don’t consider us as folk in the traditional sense. There’s a confluence somewhere but of all of us are different. Mike likes the dancier stuff, Tim listens to singer songwriters, old country music and 1930’s music. We don’t listen to just one style, I think it would be very restrictive to do that. We have a very wide spectrum, perhaps I’m more of an album listener than Tim is,” says Chris.
The foray into Mistra, of course, provides any band with new gems of knowledge. “Well, you should have asked us what we haven’t learnt. Between the first and second recording sessions there’s a huge difference in our approach. We went there the first time round with ideas, and well organised logistically because we had many guests on the record – drums, piano, double bass, violins, string quartet… the second time round we were maybe less prepared but it was more laid back yet more disciplined. We could tell if things were going to work in the studio especially those we do live,” says Chris.
“You end up removing a lot of the stuff because tracks would sound busy, bit overkill, we had to downscale and we reduced a lot of things in the mixing. You have to be ready to write boring stuff for each instrument, like just four notes. We had people coming over to play just that. But we were always disciplined as a band and we didn’t waste any time. A good two hours, without speaking much. We just meet, say hello, and work for two three hours at a go.”
The band are as yet undecided whether to pack the new material on an EP or wait a bit more until they release an album.
“We don’t know, honestly. I prefer an EP, they prefer an album. I think an album is a bit of a… being presumptuous perhaps. Don’t know why. Maybe Mike has a point in saying that it makes no sense releasing an EP and follow it up by an album that has the same songs,” says Chris.
Amid all this flair, it is difficult to imagine how such a fine extract of local music can make it onto our beloved radio stations, especially when considering Stalko’s tracks, on average, are way longer than the 4:00 mark. “Our finished songs, well I wouldn’t bother… honestly, if they pick them up on the radio it’s the people who are ready to play this music like Mike Bugeja or Eric Montfort, says Tim.
“I don’t see our music played on Bay Radio. I honestly don’t. Some songs like ours aren’t considered radio friendly, at least for local radios. To mention Arcade Fire once again, I only heard them once on local radio,” adds Chris, whose energy reserve seems to be waning.
“My aerial got stolen seven years ago. I never replaced it,” says Tim. “What’s on the radio now? Why should I listen to stuff I don’t want to hear? There’s internet nowadays so I listen to whatever I want online. I’d say my radio is seeing what people post on facebook or youtube or Grooveshark or whatever.”
Ask them whether their musical grandeur can transform itself into big things, and they’ll tell you their feet are very much glued to the ground.
“An album costs €5000 or €6000. If you don’t make it abroad how are you going to break even? None of us is spending money and expecting anything in return.” For now, Stalko’s promotion will depend on the floodgates of the internet.
They acknowledge they are “not there yet” on some aspects of their music, even critical of their own performance at folk mini-festival Wirdien back in October. Earlier on this year they played to an unfamiliar crowd at Earth Garden.
“We got a lot of good feedback. Chasing Pandora praised us publicly. At one point in time we started thinking, can we cross over? But that’s it; we never say this is good for this audience. We do it like that because it sounds good.”
* * *
Dictaphone switched off, our chat continues. Even Mike gets his occasional phrase across as Tim, once more, dominates proceedings. Eventually I am treated to a sneak preview of their new material, pre-mixing phase.
Not bad at all for, um, a bunch of “sissies”.