Jagwar Ma's Long, Fascinating Journey to 'Howlin''

Our writer joins Jagwar Ma on the road from Lollapalooza to Los Angeles to uncover their story.
Jagwar Ma
Jagwar Ma © Pooneh Ghana
By Jeremiah Alexis

Jagwar Ma have been on some kind of roll. Since their lead single 'Come Save Me' created a blazing path for them through the UK, France, Australia and now the U.S., the dynamic Aussie trio of Gabriel Winterfield (lead vocalist/guitarist), Jono Ma (guitar, beats, synths, production), and Jack Freeman (bass guitarist/vocalist) have toured three continents and counting. A couple of weeks ago, our writer Jeremiah Alexis joined them on the road from Lollapalooza to their KCRW Summer Nights performance on the Santa Monica Pier. Listen in on their conversation as they arrived in Los Angeles.

redbull.com: I was talking with my good friend Nick Maybury, who actually worked with you, Jono, in a music shop in Sydney and he was telling me about the whole FLRL (Fashion Launches Rocket Launches) collective there and how Jagwar kind of started from those roots. Was that what eventually launched you out of Sydney into this current adventure?

Gab: Well, we each had been playing in bands around town. It’s really challenging these days as an indie band to get things going. When we started our involvement in FLRL it was like an antidote to do this thing that didn’t have any consequence because the members changed, it didn’t have any songs and no rules, no one really cared, but we would always end up having an amazing night. It was always vibey, there were always great moments in the jams, musicians from all over town would play in it; sometimes out-of-town friends would sit in [Members of The Foals, M83, Chairlift have taken part]. And at a certain point, Jono and I wanted to be a bit more productive than what the FLRL was offering. So like any other form of osmosis, we came off that and started doing our own stuff.

That’s when you moved to France yes?

Gab: Yes, Jono had a friend in France and he had gone over there a year prior to set up a studio, kind of a makeshift studio. He invited me to go back with him, and it just sounded like an adventure. We had already recorded 'Come Save Me,' and I was like cool, let’s go finish the record. We had done some of the early sketches in Australia, but the crux of the record was definitely fleshed out there in France, as well as the UK.

Jagwar Ma
Meanwhile in the Tour Van © Pooneh Ghana

Paint a picture of your life at that moment. You had just left Sydney, traveling, creating this music that resonated so strongly, artistically. Did every moment feel like an adventure, both geographically and spiritually?

Gab: When you are traveling in that context and doing things for the first time, it also is an adventure in the mind. Working out who you are and how you approach things. My relationship with Jono, as friends and then becoming creative partners, was being explored. Like I would come in and sing something and play guitar, we would do something with that and on other occasions Jono would have an amazing beat, and I would sing over the top of that.

It was a time of discovery, and I think that because it wasn’t in Paris, which is a beautiful place, but it’s an intense city, hard to have your own space, your own mental space, it allowed things to blossom a lot more organically. We were in a pretty isolated part of France, so we were able to do real soul-searching and explore and the music definitely reflects that.

Jono: The adventure overseas was really an extension of what was happening in Sydney. When we make music, most of the decisions we make are based on instinct. We are asked often how the ideas come about, but it’s really hard to put that into words. It’s just instinct, we just internally guess where the direction of a song, or a beat should go. When it came to forming the group, we just made 'Come Save Me' without any preconception of what the band should sound like or what the next songs would be. We released it with no pre-judgments. Then suddenly all of this excitement came from the UK and some from Australia as well, but from the UK. it was like this giant swell.

And like how we were doing with the music, our instincts kicked in and we knew we had to come to that side of the world just because the song was telling us that’s what we had to do. And that took us to France to a studio I had been setting up years before this. And then Jack came down to France from London -- that all fell into place. When we threw caution to the wind, everything kind of fell into place, everything that has happened since then happened because we just followed our instincts.

Jagwar Ma's Gabriel Winterfield and Jack Freeman
Jagwar Ma's Gabriel Winterfield and Jack Freeman © Pooneh Ghana

So you were exploring Europe, sonically and geographically. When was the U.S. first mentioned as part of the Jagwar Ma touring plan?

Gab: Our first interaction with the U.S. was through a girl who worked at Mom + Pop, which is our U.S. label. She was working for XL at that time and she had heard ‘Come Save Me.’ And she loved it and decided to put out 'Come Save Me' as a 7-inch. That was the first inkling that there was interest in Jagwar Ma in the U.S. Then of course we signed to Mom and Pop.

Jono: Before we even left Australia, just as we recorded 'Come Save Me' and had released it, KCRW here in L.A. was playing it before we even knew what we were doing with the band.

Gab: The first time I had actually heard the song on the radio, was here in L.A. on KCRW. I was driving in a car with me mum and we had heard of KCRW, a friend had suggested I listen to it and we were driving and I hear the opening snare, badoom bak, bak, and I didn’t recognize it at first, then I heard myself singing and I was like, “Oh shit, it’s me." I couldn’t believe it, it was my song. That was an amazing experience. I was like, “Should I call up the station?” It was in the early days, and I thought, naw they will come to us eventually.

[Jono looks out the window and points to the stage. It is a KCRW sponsored event.]

Jono: That’s actually Jason Bentley on stage now, the DJ who first played it, so surreal.

Gab: Is it really? Wow, that’s a trip.

Guess your strategy worked, KCRW did come to you after all. I just saw you at Lollapalooza, you played Glastonbury, Outside Lands, your festival veterans at this point. You all were in a bunch of indie bands before this, talk about the duality of touring in those days as opposed to now.

Gab: We appreciate our current status so much. I mean we had been in bands before this that got radio play in Australia, on Triple J, high-rotation stations, but it’s really hard to make ends meet in Australia just playing music. Our population isn’t that big. I mean we would do tours with past bands, and you would hit a city, maybe get 300 people out. We would do tours and just drive, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The flights are too expensive, so we would have to drive. We would just pile into a van, drive 10 hours and play a show for 80 people. No hotels, just crash on the couches of friends and fans all over the cities. Then pile in and drive all the way back.

It was heaps of fun, when your 17 or 18 that’s a good time, but it definitely was challenging. I mean we are not at that stage now we’re we are staying in luxury hotels or anything, but we are lucky enough to have our own hotels, and we just appreciate it so much. We didn’t just land on that plateau, so we really understand how the other side is.

In some ways we resent the musical cliché that because we make so-called “psychedelic” music that we needed drugs to create that. When we were in France we weren’t on anything. We were intaking the finest, healthiest produce, going on bike rides and keeping to ourselves and creating.

Jono: When we first started Jagwar Ma, we had somewhat of an advantage because we had gone through a bunch of shit before in our old bands and made those mistakes. Right before we recorded ‘Come Save Me,’ I had been working on film scores and other things and had saved some cash, so I was able to fly us over to France. The whole studio thing sounds a lot more decadent than it was. It was a very simple, practical studio I had built in a very rural place, where we were able to live and record for free. The guy Sam that runs the studio, it’s called La Briche, it’s this old farm like two hours from Paris, he let us live there rent free, writing music, recording music. And because we are in the countryside, you have the best food, you go to a market and buy a bunch of produce and cook.

We were living on a shoestring budget, living and recording as long as we wanted to. We had no pressure everything took the time it took. I don’t think we could have put ourselves in that position had we been the young rock-and-roll kids from our previous bands.

Jagwar Ma's Jono Ma
Jono Ma Fueling Up © Pooneh Ghana

Gab: There’s just a naivete when you’re in a young band, and people are saying X, Y and Z about you. We were super young when we started, I signed to my first band when I was 16 (Ghostwood), and I couldn’t do it -- it was a head fuck. Like all these people leading you to places, telling you what’s the right move, you don’t know any better.

Jono: There’s this pressure when you don’t know what you are doing, when you’re young, and you need to finish school and whatever. This time we were able to really know what we wanted, have a vision for our music and how we were going to get it out there without the pressures of time and money, thankfully.

There’s this conception when people listen to your music, that it’s creation has to do a lot with the intake of psychedelic drugs of some sort. Yet it seems you created this record stone sober. Does that pop up a lot when you’re touring, do people offer you drugs, is that a part of the process?

Jack: If there are drugs done – weed, whatever, and I can say that I personally never smoke weed, period, as you say in America, but others dabble – if it is done, it finds us always.

Gab: I have been like this my entire life, and I have thought like this my entire life, that I could open up the doors of perception myself. I have always thought that, and we as a band, I think, all share that.

Jono: I think that in some ways we resent the musical cliché that because we make so-called “psychedelic” music that we needed drugs to create that. When we were in France we weren’t on anything. We were intaking the finest, healthiest produce, going on bike rides and keeping to ourselves and creating. We weren’t smoking anything, we were straight and sober throughout the entire recording of this record, and that’s continued on in the way we tour.

Gab: We will have a big celebration and out comes all the fun things that you’re going to do at that party, but that’s not a part of my daily life. I actually get high on the music, that’s always how it’s been. And I think there’s nothing more exciting then when you’re in a studio and your doing something that you think is special. There’s this magic like when I’m creating, Jono’s creating and we’re like, “This is cool, don’t want to say anything but this feels really kool” and that’s it’s own high.

Jono: That sounds like a cliché but when we are in a studio we are striving for that high. I think that’s why people take drugs because they are seeking transcendence. Your trying to reach a separate state, whether that’s an escape from reality or heightening reality, whatever the impetus, we make music to try to reach that higher state.

Gab: We also want it to be clear we are not advocates of being clean and sober or anything. We’re not wearing D.A.R.E. T-shirts.

Jono: We like to have a good time, like if you would have seen us day three at Glastonbury it was definitely a different story.

Based on the last few tours if you could pick a moment that Jagwar Ma's music could be a perfect soundtrack too what would it be?

Gab: Over the last year we've been lucky to travel the world a fair bit. I always associate the making of 'Howlin'' with the beaches in Sydney that we grew up in and around. We were lucky to get to swim in the Pacific, the Indian and the Mediterranean. I will forever associate those moments as great soundtrack moments.

When people travel on tour together, they tend to start sticking together like a family. And each family has weird traditions and customs that they develop over time. What are some weird customs or traditions that the band has developed?

Gab: I was reading Jack London's "Call of the Wild." There is a part where he talks about how Buck who was once a noble family pet and then is captured to be trained as a sled dog has to regress, to rediscover his raw animal instincts in order to keep up with the other wolf/huskie breeds. I think all of us tend to regress to a pack mentality when we're on tour, whether that means food fights or being socially competitive, anything goes.

What other artists have you met on tour that you connected with and would stay friends/musical collaborators with? What are some examples of creating music on the road?

Gab: We had the very good fortune of touring with Gavin, a.k.a. Cities Aviv, for a few of our dates. He's cool, we're staying in touch. We also played with Moko in London and across UK a bit. She was cool. Warpaint and Foals are good friends, but we kind of met them all prior to touring together. I always bring enough stuff with me so that I can confidently record my voice and guitar to a beat, and I always have my sketchbook, which I write poems/draw in.

Jono: We played Laneway in Australia, and I ended up at Jonti’s studio (producer Jonti Danilewitz, who is signed to Stones Throw). Stella from Warpaint was there and Earl Sweatshirt was also there. We Love Stella and have recorded with her on Warpaint stuff and she has worked on our stuff. King Krule came in as I was leaving. We love collaborating; I mean that’s how this whole project got started in the first place. We meet artist’s all the time on the road that we would love to collaborate with; it’s all about the timing and the vibe.

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