While art in isolation has become a familiar tale, Tora’s sonic universes still feel entirely unique.
Recently released singles such as Call On Me, and Why Won’t You Wait tell a story of COVID separation – at face value. But what makes Tora’s latest creations so mesmerising, is their ability to call upon something entirely human.
Their upcoming album, A Force Majeure, brings this ethos into a new light. Basslines, synth arps and meticulous atmosphere weave together with lyricism so perfectly, one could mistake Tora’s music as its own living, breathing being. The result is a careful acknowledgment of the forces out of our control, which welcomes clunky, human reactions.
In light of this incredible release, Happy got the chance to sit down with bassist and engineer, Shaun Johnston, to chat about isolated creation, and the forces beyond our control.
HAPPY: So, how’s your day been? How’s life going?
SHAUN: It’s going really well. It’s just the morning here… I’m not sure where you are?
SHAUN: Well, at the start of the month, and that’s kind of changed. So here I am, still in Amsterdam. I’ve changed my flights. So it’s just the morning, I’ve just had some breakfast and my coffee and I’m just getting into it. And ‘s I was just looking outside, and it looks like it’s grey old Amsterdam, as usual.
HAPPY: What’s new?
SHAUN: Yeah, we have we have like 10 days or 15 days of sunshine hanging on and the rest is pretty bad.
HAPPY: I think someone once said that Amsterdam is just European Canberra. I felt that.
SHAUN: (Laughs) It’s a bit like that, but it’s been good for writing the music, actually. Yeah. It’s kind of giving us time to spend in the studio and focus on that, which has been good.
HAPPY: Yeah. Well, speaking of your music, excellent segue. So I guess I wanted to ask, with Call On Me, as well as Why Would You Wait and When Will I Learn, there’s this sort of boldness that I feel like wasn’t there in your previous tracks, but is definitely at the forefront. And I guess I really want to ask, like, what have you guys done differently with this body of work?
SHAUN: I think this one really has stuck out because from our previous works, like our previous albums, especially the last two feature, like full-length albums, was that we did a lot of writing separately, either in living rooms or even on tour sometimes, but a lot of the time it was kind of done sporadically and broken up throughout the year. And then we would kind of come back together, either after a tour or in between tours, and we’d rent out one of our parents’ houses like that and try to finish it all just in the living room with this sort of gear that we had. So it was very like sort of thrown together, which was good and it was fun, but it never gave us the opportunity to, like, really spend a lot of concentrated time on a body of work, and to really sort of tease out the sort of, I guess, continual message that could transmit through each song, and kind of give a bigger, broader sort of picture and story. So this time, we came to Europe, we planned to be touring and then, of course, the whole world kind of put brakes on everything. So we got a studio and it really gave us the opportunity to spend a whole year in the studio together, and gave us that time to really focus in on the on the songs and to write them all together, and to really sort of tease out the meaning of each of the songs – whether it was lyrical, whether it was emotional, or whatever each individual was going through. Yeah, I think the biggest difference was just mainly it gave us the time that we felt like we could have. And we were lucky enough to have the space that we could just set up and go in whenever we needed to.
HAPPY: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s really interesting just from other artists that I’ve talked to, I’m assuming this was happening during the pandemic. A lot of artists say that they felt so creatively stifled because they didn’t have the rest of the world to bounce off. And I guess, did you ever feel that way at any point?
SHAUN: Yeah, I think at the beginning. At the beginning, we did a little bit. All our shows got cancelled. And then it was trying to look for like our own place here in Amsterdam. We just arrived, and didn’t really know the city that well and sort of how things operate here. And so we looked for places to be creative, but then a lot of studios closed, and then we couldn’t find our own place. So there was a kind of moment where we’re like, ‘oh, well, like, what are we doing here? We can’t tour, we can’t write. Maybe we just need to, like, throw in and go back to Australia and then hopefully try to do this later on.’ But lucky enough, we could find a space. And pretty much as soon as we found a place, like a studio that we could work out of and set it up with our own gear, it kind of just exploded from there. And then we were just so committed to just going in literally six days a week, I would say. It’s like a 25, 30-minute ride from where we live in the east. And we were literally just going that every day, which was kind of our very cathartic sort of thing that kind of helped us through, I guess, the first six months at least. We were just going all the time, because we figured, ‘Everything’s closed, there’s nothing to do. We might as well be in the studio writing together.’ Yeah. So at first it was a bit like maybe like a bit of a block. But then as soon as we had the space and the gear, it just like flowed very naturally.
HAPPY: Yeah. I guess, you know, that sort of leads me on to… I am going to admit my ignorance. I don’t know how to say this upcoming album. A force major? Majeure?
HAPPY: OK. I was like, ‘should I bring this up?’ So with A Force Majeur, I guess like is that bold sound a continuation? And I also sort of want to know about, I guess the labelless music that you sort of developed, where have you drawn from for this album, I guess, and where you sort of selected from, and what have you been like listening to as a result?
SHAUN: OK, well it’s always been like an interesting process. We always seem to meet some resistance in the sense from going down the sort of major label path and trying to develop our sound. Our sound, it kind of comes quite organically, like the four of us… even though our tastes do sort of cross over, there’s still such a difference in terms of genres and artists that we all find inspiration from listening to on a daily basis. So the four of us, I guess it’s a kind of melting pot in a sense, and that’s why it’s, I guess, been hard in the past to kind of like try to fit us into a box of some sort of genre, or what is the next album going to sound like? And I guess at times, we don’t even really know, but we always have… it’s sort of well now… well, now we’re working with ‘Believe’ and they’ve come on for Force Majeure.
I think the inspiration for that, at least for the album and maybe the underlying message, was a lot of the songs and of the message is kind of relevant for what happened last year, with this separation from family, separation from loved ones, relationships, all that sort of stuff, like the greater power at work, and the sort of struggles and the lessons and everything that comes with it, that you learnt through that period of time. And we were lucky enough, like we went into writing that album independently, with our team, and by the end of the year, we teamed up with Believe Music, and they’re an amazing force that came on and kind of helped us… not necessarily like change the sound or tell us what needs to happen or not, but just to give us a really clear sort of feedback, and to believe in… Like Believe Music.. not believe in music… (laughs).
SHAUN: But, to believe in what we were creating, and really support it. So like we were at the point of, well actually, I think, most of the year, eight months or nine months of writing this music. Do we have something that’s actually an album, and whatever. And they came in and were like, ‘This is something that’s really amazing. We want to back this’, and it’s been incredible, like the first three singles out now and… yeah, for us, it was really a process that really helped us through the whole year. I think that’s like the embodiment of our year, and sort of lessons and struggles.
HAPPY: I think that idea of catharsis is really artistically beautiful. Not to sound like a wanker, but I do think that, you know, I think it’s beautiful. I also maybe want to geek out for a minute if that’s OK, just because I’ve always loved the way that the music, I guess like sonically matches what’s going on lyrically. And I just sort of want to know, it’s so intricate. How does that all form together, especially given the fact that it’s a collaborative effort?
SHAUN: Yeah, it’s actually quite interesting, actually. So lyrically, each song is kind of different. This album, like I was mentioning, has been quite different to the last, especially because we have had the most amount all together in one place without sort of any external distractions, whether it’s like other jobs or travelling or family or relationship or whatever, it’s really being in one place. And so, this time it’s been quite interesting, sometimes it starts with a song purely on piano, maybe with a melody already in mind. Sometimes it’s actually a melody that starts, and go from there. Sometimes it can be the other way around, with sort of roots to leaves or leaves to roots. It can kind of go either way with. With lyrics, it’s quite interesting because sometimes Joe can have a melody that he’s been sitting on for six months, that’s something that has no lyrics or anything to it. It’s purely just a melody base that gets stuck in his head, or sort of recording on his phone, or locked away on his computer. And sometimes we’re going to tracking of a melody on this new idea in the studio.
And it would literally just be sounds, melody, but no tangible sort of like lyrics that come through, or maybe a couple of lyrics that make any sense. And then from there, kind of creates the inspiration starts to flow, and often he’ll go away, maybe that day, depending on how inspired he’s doing, what he’s going through at the time. A lot of the time, it’s like very current feelings and emotion that he’s going through, that’s just very naturally flowing for him. And he finds it really hard to, like, just write about something, like about a subject that’s not actually affecting him at the time. Most of the time, it’s very current, either emotional or very present moment things that are happening to him or to us even. And so, then Jai is writing his own lyrics and that sort of stuff, but I think it gave them like the freedom to express and write whatever they’re feeling. Sometimes, it can happen in the day and sometimes it can happen… there’s been tracks where it’s happened over the year sort of stuff. But on this album, a lot of it was written during the year, which I guess as you hear each song coming on the album, it is very like, present and it’s like the now.
HAPPY: Very well put. I guess I want to ask then, were there any sort of tracks or things that you’d been working on during this process where you were having difficulty, but you persevered and it turned out to be the best thing… and it was so worthwhile persevering as a result?
SHAUN: Yeah, there’s a couple of tracks on that like that, actually. Actually, When Will I Learn was one of those tracks. So, Joe had started writing just on piano and. And I think it was a couple of years back and it was literally just sitting there, but it’s just sort of the key part, and it was just him repeating, ‘when will I learn? When will I learn to love?’ and playing it. And he kind of imagined, like, this needs to be something, but couldn’t I guess get it to where he wanted to go. And he had a demo, and the demo was sitting there for a while, and then it was one of the songs we went back to. We have this folder, which is like I think it’s called ‘Strongies’ or ‘Strong Ideas’ or something like that (laughs).
And it’s just like a folder of ideas that literally just get stashed there. And any time that, you know, you see you’re working on a song or something like that, and you just want to work on something new that, you know, has potential, that you just open up this folder, pull it out and so on. And that was one of these tracks that was sitting there and this folder for so long. And we were like, ‘no, this has to like come out. It’s a great song. We just need to sit down.’ And like you say, persevere and push through. Sometimes you get like stuck because maybe you have an idea or you have an expectation of where track needs to get to. And maybe you have brought it to that point, but it’s hard to like kind of sit back and appreciate it for what it was. But once we got it there, we all kind of like sat back and was like, ‘OK, this has reached its end goal.’ But sometimes it can take, yeah, it can be over a period of many years from the initial idea of creation to the sort of completion, master handing in the track.
HAPPY: Yeah, I guess that sort of leads me more to my last question of, what was it like to hear it all… like what was it like to work on this thing for so long, for a year during the pandemic, and then sort of hear it back and to have it sort of in this complete form?
SHAUN: It was incredible. There was a moment where I thought it wasn’t going to happen for so long. We’d just been working on it for so long, and it was like a burning desire in us because we were like… Our tour had been cancelled. And we were like, ‘Oh, it’s postponed. It’s April but we’re going to tour in October.’ It was perfect – we’ll pump out these songs, get it ready for October. And then October came, and then, it didn’t end in October. And so up until then, we were literally doing video clips, going mad, trying to finish the album before October, like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to do this.’ And we were just like, ‘what are we doing? It’s not going to happen.’ So there was a moment where we were like, ‘are we ever going to finish this? Or is this just something that’s going to get pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed, and then just get lost?’
And so it was a little moment of like kind of frustration, and like this anxiety of like, ‘Are we going to just sit on this for too long, and they’re gonna lose some sparkle and this sort of life that we had for them’?’ But it was absolutely like the opposite, it was just purely our inability at the time to have this sort of patience to say, ‘hey, you spent all this time. Spend a little bit more time on them to get them perfect. Let’s finish the work and the deal on the strategy with our new team that we just met, and sort of fostered this new sort of like family the team that we have around us now.’ And yeah, now to see them coming out into the world is amazing and to hear them back as a whole album, I still remember like, the day we were like gave ourselves. I think it was December 1st or something like, and that was kind of day where Believe was like ‘you’ve got to hand in the masters, and you can’t touch anything now.’ And that was this crazy, crazy time of the night before going, ‘Is this OK? Is this OK?’ But then finally, just handing it, listening back for the first time, that’s everything you wanted. Yeah. It was one of the first times I think that we were all sat in the studio to listen to the album from top to bottom, and would happily walk away feeling it was finished and ready.
HAPPY: Yeah, that’s beautiful. On that note, I guess, thank you so much for talking to me. I guess is there anything that you want to add in and anything I touched upon that you think is important?
SHAUN: There’s probably like some stuff that my label managers expect me to say, but I can’t… (laughs) Depending on when this is coming out, I’ll just say just the regular sort of social media stuff… Call On Me is out, three songs, and we’re just so happy to be able to share our music with the world again. And I’m really looking forward to playing live and getting back on the road. Yeah, experiencing that side of the industry.
HAPPY: So yeah. Oh, quickly. Shit. Oh, my God. I’m sorry. I almost forgot about the music video. The music video. The really cool music video. Can you give me some just background into sort of where that was recorded firstly, because that looked fucking gorgeous, but also like vibes?
SHAUN: Wait, so the latest one, Call On Me?
HAPPY: Call On Me, yeah.
SHAUN: Yeah. So that’s recorded in well, in two parts. So the one part like the sort of indoor warehouse was recorded in NDSM, which is like on the north side of Amsterdam, and it’s ssort of like the industrial area where there’s a lot of creative studios and stuff. And our video director, Bob Zizou, that’s him and his brother run that sort of studio. That was amazing. They had a bunch of dancers coming in that we had no idea. So when we arrived and we started shooting, and it’s like, ‘This is kind of awkward,’ and you don’t know what’s going on.
And then all of a sudden, it’s like this Flashdance. But some of the people that were there are actually professional dancers, and they just choreographed everything, and it’s like, ‘Oh wow, we don’t have to do anything. We just have to stand here and just fill the gaps.’ So it was an amazing time. And then the second location, the beautiful scenic location is… I have to look more into it, but I think it’s an art installation. But I think it has some sort of historic sort of meaning in terms of where it’s placed.
So it’s, well, you still like a hallway thing with the green hills. Yeah, we didn’t see the rest of it, but it’s kind of like a bowl. It’s like this green bowl shape and that leads into the bowl shape thing. It’s like it looks like something out of like the Hobbit, like it’s like green rolling hills. But that’s also in the Netherlands as well. It was his dream to have this sort of feeling between these two worlds, and like switching between, you know,
HAPPY: Well, Thank you so much for talking to me! I’ll let you get back to it. Be safe and enjoy Amsterdam.
SHAUN: Thank you so much. Thank you. All the best!
HAPPY: Thank you. Good luck!
A Force Majeure is out on 3 September! Preorder here!
Interview by Mike Hitch.