Born Lion explain why Rap is the new Punk and having a bromance with The Stiffys

Born Lion have just released their debut album Final Words, and are currently in the process of tearing up venues around the country in support of it. On a lazy Friday arvo Nathan Mulholland shares a beer and chats about the last thing you’d expect a punk bass player to: rap music.

Born Lion Interview

Photos by Liam Cameron

HAPPY: So how’d you get into rap?

NATHAN: I sort of found my way into it through Sage Francis. It’s just like watching an old man going crazy! I loved him! From there I went to listening to Brother Ali and stuff like, mid-west Chicago stuff. Then I started listening to Kanye for some reason. I got Yeezus and I thought “This will be interesting, I just want to check it out.” Fuck, it was great. It was so good. Then I went all the way back and started listening to all of his back catalogue. I just listen to rap music now (laughs).

HAPPY: That’s not very punk of you at all!

NATHAN: Well, punk rock is stupid.

HAPPY: Hip-hop in a way has become the new version of punk rock though. Kanye has to be the biggest rock star on the planet.

NATHAN: I think he’s the most punk rock dude on the planet. Why would he do Bohemian Rhapsody if it was going to be so terrible? Because it was going to be bad and he did it anyway! That’s punk rock. It was, it was terrible but he still did it.

HAPPY: And Brother Ali will be up at BIGSOUND next week as a keynote speaker.

NATHAN: I saw him after I saw Refused when they came back. When I saw Brother Ali I thought “Fuck this is the best stuff I’ve seen!” I’m so pumped to see him speak.

HAPPY: I wonder what he’ll speak about?

NATHAN: Yeah that’s the thing! He…I don’t know what he’d speak about. What I can gather about him is that he’s an artist, he’s not a business man. And BIGSOUND is about business, I guess. Well, we never went to keynotes or anything like that. We just drank and hung out with people. It’s amazing, it’s just two solid days in the Valley with great bands. That’s the gamble with live music, you can show up to a venue and the band can be really shit. You’d think “Theses guys suck! I should be at home watching Netflix,” but every band at BIGSOUND rules, and everyone’s there putting their best foot forward.

HAPPY: I love that everyone’s go-to for staying at home now is to watch Netflix.

NATHAN: I know. My wife and I spent some time in New York and we used to watch it before going to sleep.

HAPPY: But earlier you mentioned you couldn’t sleep when you lived in Marrickville?

NATHAN: Yeah so I used to live in this town house complex just down the road from here with all these backpackers. All they’d do is play Tubthumping on loop from Wednesday to Sunday, and it was the worst fucking thing!

HAPPY: Literally from Wednesday to Sunday non-stop?

NATHAN: That’s what it felt like. I’m sure it was every four or five songs, and that song was unpleasant the first time, but these guys fucking loved it.

HAPPY: Is it one of those songs that get stuck in your head for the rest of your life now?

NATHAN: I’m singing it in my head right now! Now I’ve gone back to resenting those people who I haven’t seen in like five years.

HAPPY: That’s the gamble with shared living.

NATHAN: We didn’t live with them though! They just lived in the same complex! There was this big grass strip down the middle of thew complex and that’s where they would congregate, 24/7. Fucking backpackers listening to Tubthumping. They had giant sound systems, and it was bad. By the way, do you know the guys from The Stiffys?

HAPPY: Not personally, yet.

Born Lion Interview

NATHAN: Go and see them at BIGSOUND man*, they’re the nicest dudes! We met them because we sort of run in the same circles. We played one show with them and they were like “Oh hey Born Lion!” and we were like “Oh hey The Stiffys! Let’s be friends!” It was like that, that was the dialogue that made us friends. We were hanging out at the merch table and Jason and I went upstairs and they were giving away flash tattoos. We thought “Let’s get our names tattooed on each other!” That would’ve been a terrible idea, but they’re the best guys man, I hope you meet them at BIGSOUND. They’re the best! They’re so smart as well. The way they operate is slick. It’s the schtick ever. Their ultimate goal is for people to come to their shows and just have the best time. That’s what they do and they fucking nail it. They’re so good live, they’re so tight and it’s just the two of them.

HAPPY: It’s not an easy thing to do, to constantly exude that fun persona.

NATHAN: No, but their suits might help. The space suits, sailor suits! I had a thought for them today. Remember the cat-shark riding the roomba chasing the dog around? That’s just the internet video of those guys. That shit is two years old now, but that’s what The Stiffys are, the human version of that video.

HAPPY: You guys should colaborate at BIGSOUND.

NATHAN: Stiff Lion! Yeah, but I play bass, not Jason because he’s better than me. He can freestyle rap, then when I try to rap everyone will boo and BIGSOUND will go down in flames.

HAPPY: If you had to compare Born Lion to an internet sensation or meme what would you compare the band to?

NATHAN: Fuck, that’s an interesting line of questioning. Jesus, I don’t know. I don’t know man! We’re a bunch of older guys and I’m the youngest. I don’t think those dudes are aware of memes or whatever. John said something the other day, and what he said no one had used those words in five years. I know it’s really fickle or whatever, but everything moves so quickly. It’s hot for an instant and then it isn’t. Like the Fat Jew, don’t make me out like an anti-semite or something, that’s what he’s called! Everything he puts out, he spits it out and is onto something else. Everything on the internet moves so fast and I don’t think could we be compared to anything like that.

HAPPY: You guys are like a good book. A little frayed around the edges.

NATHAN: And timeless. Have you read the new Harper Lee book? I saw it at a bookshop in Melbourne, I asked the guys if it had been doing anything and he said it hadn’t.

HAPPY: Really? You’d think a Harper Lee book would go crazy.

NATHAN: Exactly. She did To Kill A Mockingbird.

HAPPY: Was it any good?

NATHAN: Haven’t read it (laughs).

HAPPY: Too busy looking at memes?

NATHAN: (laughs) Yeah too busy looking at YouTube! Nah I read, I like Chuck Palahniuk but I never read Fight Club though, I avoided it. Like most of his books half of them are terrible and the others are great. I haven’t read a book in ages. I read the first 60 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow before putting it down and going “What the fuck was that?” Here’s what I do, if I read a book I know has been made into a movie I’ll read a little bit of the book, then go to IMDb and I’ll assign the characters in the book their actor’s voice. Now that I have Netflix and that sort of shit I haven’t read a book in so long. My wife bought me a book called How to Rap for Christmas. It’s critically acclaimed, but it’s so rudimentary. It’s got A$AP Rocky and all these guys who have been rappers forever and they each have their own segments. It’s really like rapping for dummies. I still can’t rap. I tried a few bars once.

Born Lion Interview

HAPPY: How’d it go?

NATHAN: I’m not telling you! I’m not telling anyone that shit! (laughs). I’ll probably end up hammered at a gig one night and it’ll all come rambling out and people will upload it to Instagram or something. I’m no Taylor Swift rapping Kendrick with some backseat freestyle. I don’t know how these guys do it with such volume of words.

HAPPY: You have to have it in you. I tired to rap along to Eminem as a kid and it just wasn’t happening.

NATHAN: Have you heard Rap God? It’s one of the last things he put out, and fuck man, he just goes for six minutes. So you think about a rock song is like four bars a verse, he’s got 128 bar verses. How can he remember that many words? It’s mental.

HAPPY: He was named one of the best living poets a little while ago too.

NATHAN: I wasn’t into rap when I first heard of him, but I remember hearing the Marshall Mathers LP and thinking he was fucking great. I was never one of those guys who were like “If it’s not rock it doesn’t count,” I think that’s a really terrible attitude. I exclusively listened to rock through my early 20s but I was still that aware that other forms of music required talent and a lot of skill. When I started listening to rap music  became really aware of how much effort it took to put that amount of content into a song.

HAPPY: It’s funny how you see people change their tastes as they get to that age, but only rock people who stay rock fans and nothing else matters.

NATHAN: I think it’s a generational thing. If you listen to Triple M, it’s just rock, rock, rock.

HAPPY: And footy.

NATHAN: Rock and footy. But I think it’s a generational thing, people who listen to rock are my age and older. Rock’s for everyone, but it’s a little bit of close-mindedness. With rap music at the moment, with hip-hop culture there’s an open-minded nature. It’s the dominant culture at the moment. With all that’s happening in the world right now, with police brutality in America and everything else that displaces people. That’s what rap music was born out of. I have no right to that. I grew up in the suburbs as a white, straight kid. I have no right to that backstory, but to dip into it and to hear it, man. That’s why rap music is so big right now. Rock music, I don’t want to be harsh, but it’s at the bottom of it’s swing at the moment. For the most part rock music is made by people like me. I don’t know if it will ever get another kick. There will be another Nirvana or something like that, but on a really broad social level I don’t know if rock has that power anymore.

Rap is coming and it’s going to change things. I think there will be a rap radio station in Australia soon. Aussie rap music is something else man. That L-Fresh the Lion track man, have you heard that? Oh my God, I’ve talking to that guy on twitter for the last five years, he’s a nice guy, I’d listened to him a couple of times, but this song man. It’s fucking amazing!

HAPPY: Have you heard Koi Child?

NATHAN: From Perth? I heard that shit yesterday. The rapping and the music was amazing. That is really, really great stuff.

HAPPY: And that’s jazz-hop, which is a good example of how versatile rap music is. All the different time signatures and rhythms, will rock music ever be able to match that? 

NATHAN: Well going back to contradict myself, I think that will always be rock’s place. I’m a terrible bass player. I started playing bass because I was sick of playing basketball. Bass looked like the easy one, there’s only four strings. The thing with punk rock is that it doesn’t matter how good you are. I think the most important thing with all art forms is honesty. We play the sort of music we know how to play and there’ll always be a place for that. As long as people believe in themselves and what they’re doing.

Born Lion Interview

HAPPY: I love that you openly admit you’re a bad bass player (laughs).

NATHAN: Well their first band before I joined, their old bass player was amazing. He does session work now. The first thing I said to them was “Listen I’m not that guy, I’m not that good.” And they were fine with it. It made us better. It’s not because I’m a great bass player, but I just think having someone like me who is trying to prove something gave the other guys more room to do their thing. At a certain point I realised what I had gotten myself into (laughs). I’m not gonna be up front doing a solo, I’m just a fucking bass player, I’m just there to fill a frequency. Once I accepted that, it became my mantra, I’m there for the other guys. For bands, music is a collective expression of art. I’m not underplaying it, I know my role is important, but I just know that my role as a bass player is as a foundation. No one will ever be “Fuck! Did you see that bass player!” No one cares.

HAPPY: Did you see that article about how bass is scientifically the most important part of a band.

NATHAN: I did read that! And how it can move the music without anyone ever noticing! Roger Waters and stuff were really important as songwriters, because if the guitars were playing an A the bass would play an A, or a C. It can change and shift. We’d written the record by then so I didn’t take any of that on that one, but I’ll be wielding some power on the next record!

HAPPY: Well speaking of Born Lion, you guys recently played with Yellowcard of all people.

NATHAN: That was so good! We were so stoked for that. At the start we weren’t sure, but by the end it was the best thing because it put us in front of people who would never have heard of us. We were talking to Alex from All Time Low at the end of the show and he was like “I wish my band could do this sort of thing.” They could never play that, they’re super shiny. They’re pop songs with guitars basically. They’re never gonna get out of that scene because everyone has already formed their opinion of them. We were playing to a couple hundred blank canvases every night. We scared most of them, but some liked us.

HAPPY: You were terrifying teenage girls (laughs).

NATHAN: Pretty much. I’d imagine they’d be like “Who are these old men?!” So we were doing bigger shows and bigger rooms, and now we’re back on our own tour. Everything went wrong in Melbourne!

HAPPY: How so?

NATHAN: Just standard stuff. For this tour we got a banner, and it fell down in the second song. I turn around and the banner’s fallen down, it was hilarious. We were playing a song that we started playing when I joined the band. We’d never fucked it up once, it was one of our go-to song. We always nailed it, but this time we fucked it. We sucked so bad.

HAPPY: Because the banner fell down?

NATHAN: For me that’s what happened! I don’t know what happened to everyone else. Our drummer might have gone to a part at the wrong time, he might have gone at the wrong time but everyone was playing a different bit at the same time. You know that thing where people will say “Oh, did you hear me fuck up?“, and my wife would say “Oh don’t worry about it, no one knows the song!” Everyone noticed, everyone would have noticed that. The only thing we were playing together was the tempo. Everyone was playing a different note, a different part. That was the first time and hopefully the last. But after that it was good. John spent two songs on this one muscly guy’s back, it was crazy. But Yellowcard man, that was just a bunch of scared looking girls. And there was one kid in Melbourne going off and we had to point him out.

HAPPY: I remember seeing the announcement that you guys would be playing together, it felt so strange.

NATHAN: We had the same reservations when we played with Karnivool. They’re a tech metal band for dudes who like to figure these songs out. We weren’t sure if we should do it, but we did, and that’s the thing about Karnivool fans is that they’re music fans as well. This is advice, if something comes up, just do it!

HAPPY: Well on that note Nathan I’ll ask you the final question. We always talk about what makes us happy, so dude, what makes you happy?

NATHAN: I love Friday afternoons, which is right now! I finish work at 12.30 on a Friday afternoon and I’ll actually stick around work because I’m in a good mood. I love it!

*ED. The Stiffys aren’t playing BIGSOUND this year, but hey, one can hope right?