Little Pictures couplet Johanna Freeman and Mark Turner sit down with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM to talk Owl + Owl, their debut album.

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Little Pictures: Owl + Owl

LITTLE PICTURES sound like a band who pat puppies in-between takes. Their bedroom-pop meets electronic minimalism is the kind of music that has some people in raptures, and others, well, not so. There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. It hasn’t stopped them winning favour on some of the bigger blogs (they were one of the most searched for bands on a couple of the big blog databases), and having their debut album join the increasingly legendary L’il Chief stable. A real-life couple, the duo Johanna Freeman and Mark Turner, carry their winningness over to the interview table. Their sentences are finished by each other, their words jostling with the seconds to get out as quickly as possible.

The band was only formed just over a year ago. Freeman says “Mark and I met at a party at the beginning of last year and started going out. Maybe halfway through last year, Mark had some songs and asked me to sing on them. I wasn’t that keen, but I did and really liked it. And we started writing together. Someone asked us to play a show and we had to quickly see if we can play live.” Turner adds “and then someone asked us to do a tour.” They weren’t expecting too much, especially things happening as quickly as they have. Turner says “I’d never really played keyboards before or done any recording stuff. That’s why we kept things so simple, partly because I don’t know any better.”

Without wanting to sound like a Woman’s Weekly interview it is interesting to see how the musical dynamic works while also being in a relationship (a third member left at the beginning). It’s not as if either of them would become the Yoko in the band. Freeman says “it seems so obvious after it works.” Turner “Most of what we do is travel places together.” “It’s just part of our lives.” “It’s funny, being in a band isn’t just playing. “Being in a band is like being in a relationship.” Freeman states “it’s very simple and it’s very easy. The worst thing that happens is that we get annoyed with each other and act like five-year-olds for a while.”

The duo mutually work on the songs. Turner says “we write everything electronically. We come up with an idea and do it together. It’s very collaborative, which is different to a lot of other L’il Chief bands which are just one person.” They record everything themselves too. Their debut album Owl + Owl was forced out due to a white lie told to some of the L’il Chief figures. Freeman says “we met the L’il Chief folk at Camp a Low Hum and we met Gareth Chute and Jonathan Bree, and they liked it. And they asked us if ‘you guys were planning on releasing anything, we’ll help you release it’. And we were like ‘yeah, we have an album, and it’s almost finished.’ It was a gross lie.” The songs took over a year, and was really sporadic. Turner admits “I really don’t like the idea of doing stuff, and doing it again. That’s not to say we don’t spend a lot of time tinkering away. The song only exists in the recording. They’re all just a one idea song. And then it just happens into a thing.”

Things have happened quickly for the band, benefiting from a bit of exposure on the ‘net. The duo are quick to point out that the internet is hardly a panacea for underexposed bands, but the blogs have helped. Turner says “It’s really unusual with the blogs that New Zealand musicians don’t spam them. I think music magazines used to be like blogs, but with things like the front cover for sale; blogs are just what this person likes for one second. It’s honest in a way. [However] it’s so funny to hear people talk about how the internet democratises, when they haven’t done anything with it. That you can put a single up on myspace and people will listen to it.” Being in the New Zealand environment does help bands get, at least some, exposure. “I think in New Zealand, it’s unusual for bands to do lots of things and still not get any attention. Maybe in other countries where there’s lot of bands and they have to do something really special. In New Zealand, if you put out a couple of videos and release an album, and tour overseas, someone is going to write about you.”

Freeman says “we were really lucky, the songs are really short. You can listen to it straightaway. It got picked up really easily on the blogs, which is really exciting because we weren’t really aware of how widely they can get.” This also meant they were able to find an audience and get reviewed pretty quickly. Turner admits “it was good to get reviews. We find we get some positive reviews from that. We’ve had a few New Zealand reviews so far, and some of them [aren’t]” “I think with blogs, someone will only blog about you if they like you, or if it’s a backlash thing about the fact that everybody else likes you, like ‘ohmigod, why are these guys getting so much hype’, which is kind of exciting too.” It’s helped being on the internationally renowned L’il Chief label. “It’s just impressive to be associated with them. We find lots of people on blogs like the Brunettes and the Ruby Suns.”

But all newfound favour this does mean the band has had a bit of a backlash. And being part of a so-called scene hasn’t helped. Their music is the type of music that is charming for one person, and cloying for another. Or as Turner said a blog put it, “I found this most bizarre duo. It’s just absurdly shit music but I just can’t stop listening to it.” Which is kinda positive and negative. But it was an article in Victoria University’s Salient, which got the two talking. An article which swiped at the Low Hum “scene”, and in the collateral damage, the band were called (along with others) “the crusting semen of New Zealand underground music.” Seeing how nice the duo are (and the backlash to the article), it’s of no surprise that they felt really bad for the writer because of that whole saga. Turner says “we felt really bad because it seemed like he was outside of it, and sad about it.” Freeman says ‘we can remember feeling like that – not quite as angry. But yeah, feeling like we were outside of it, and thinking people think they’re really cool. Nobody thinks they’re really cool. “It’s a very open, accepting group of people.” The two have started a forum for New Zealand music enthusiasts in response (www.toohotforpants.com). It wasn’t the criticism of their music that annoyed the two (“it’s good when people have those sort of reactions to your music”), it was the attack on the perceived behaviour of those involved. Turner says “it’s kind of weird when they say you’re in it for the wrong reasons. That implies like they’ve talked to us and asked us. It’s a bit presumptuous. It’s the ultimate way of saying I think you’re really shit.” Freeman adds “it was factually inaccurate. We’re the least party people ever. On Saturday night, we built an internet forum.”

They have no problem with the criticism, or the fact they polarise people. They wrote a list of what they expected people to say, things like “‘they’re too cute’ or a ‘boy-girl couple thing’, or ‘they’re too simple’. When people say stuff like that, in a really negative way, that’s okay because that’s true.” But these reasons are also exactly why audiences have responded positively to the band. They’re not saying “that people are not meant to say something critical. Criticism’s great, I just don’t agree with this philosophy that a lot of people seem to say to me, ‘you should say mean things to people, because if they can’t take, it’s their problem, and it’ll make their music better’. Not really, it just makes you feel sad.” “It’s not constructive.” “When people say ‘they’re trying to help’, it’s really self-righteous.” “It’s never targeted criticism. It’s ‘I don’t like this, because I don’t like the people’”. Freeman says “I feel that people write about it like it’s some conspiracy – ‘oh my god, all these people know each other and they like each other’s bands’. Oh no!”

To be fair, the band just sound like they’re having some fun, and making music as a result. It’s hardly a dishonourable reason to make music. It’s music you take seriously at your peril. Turner says “We do spend some serious time on it, it’s not like we spend two seconds on it.” “We’re not trying to make this really authentic rock music or express our innermost excerpts.” They’re also not some sort of forced twee band either – while I despise the use of the word “pretentious” in relation to art, Little Pictures are very unpretentious. Theirs is not music that comes armed with shadowy layers or latent darkness. The music is what it is, and it’s fun, infuriating, enjoyable, naïve, and charming.