Naarm musician Cale Sexton has been peddling his unique brand of spacious, electro-tinged psychedelia for some time now. Having earned a strong following through his well-received outings on local label Butter Sessions, Cale is also known for his live sets, as attendees of local institutions such as Hopkins Creek will surely testify. Cale's long association with Naarm's dance music scene is interesting in that his music, particularly of late, rarely sounds produced with overt aspirations of receiving club play in mind. His music's club connotations are partly due to his decision to release through dance-focussed labels like Naarm techno originators Butter Sessions. However, they also speak for his ability to create music that appeals to dancers and DJs while at the same time not being overly constrained by the conventions and limitations of traditional dance floor music. To strike this delicate balance, Cale tries not to worry too much about what style or genre of music he is making or about the label he is making it for.
"any bit of music that I've ever tried to make, say, with a label in mind, just kind of loses that spark. It ends up sounding a bit half-baked, and loses that special thing that makes you want to put the track out”
His latest offering, Sustain, released last week on Heavy Machinery Records, dives further into the "home listening" side of things. The tracks within are slow burners, to be sure, but the sense of progression, as well as the incredibly detailed sound design found across each track, ensures that the album is thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. His patient approach across the record gives ideas and passages ample time to grow and develop. His sound palette draws heavily from the world of Krautrock; his guitar is a lot more prominent here than on his previous efforts, while his drum programming often has a distinctly "motorik" feel to it. Another element of "Sustain" that causes it to stand out in his catalog of work is the heavy use of bells throughout the album. These dings and dongs, sourced from Naarm's iconic Federation Bells, form the melodic backbone of the album. Each track orbits gently around his compositions for the bells, with a remarkable sense of balance struck throughout. This balance is no mean feat considering bells are notoriously harmonically challenging to work with, or, as Cale puts it, "not particularly pretty sounding." Rather than really leaning into the dissonance of the bells, Sustain sees Cale integrate the bells, which are computer-controlled, melodically into the fabric of the album. The unique pitch and tuning of the Federation Bells added complexity to this process. Unlike most western instruments, the bells are "just tuned", a tuning system that follows nature's harmonic system. In layman's terms, this means that the Federation Bells have a fresh sound. The tracks on the album had to be built around compositions specifically designed for the bells, as conventional melodies or phrases likely would not translate well to the bells tuning system.
"You couldn’t just plug in the MIDI for a song [into the bells], because they don’t correspond in that way...and when you try and blend something from this group of bells to the other, they clash a lot”
Impressively written in just four weeks, the album was premiered initially through a live performance alongside the Birrarung Marr in late 2019. Although the album's lengthy gestation period saw multiple revisions made, Cale reckons the finished product stayed pretty true to the original live performance. This result fits in that Cale's approach to writing and recording this album differed from his usual, having more in common with the process used to develop his famed live sets.
“it was interesting to make a record kind of backwards. Usually, I would make the record and then sample the instruments for live performance. But in this case, music for the [live] piece first, then a lot more programming and Ableton then I would usually do, had to actually keep track of that a bit more, usually I'm a bit lazy with that.”
Cale had to modify his usual workflow and techniques to meet the relatively short deadline set by his label. The deadline, while challenging, also brought about some positive changes to his creative process, somewhat freeing him of his tendency to "overthink everything" in the studio and allowing him to be more open to happy mistakes.
“It was the deadline to work to, it definitely changed the whole process. And I think it was a positive thing.”
Overall, "Sustain" further establishes Cale's standing as one of the most original and consistent artists in Naarm. A truly immersive piece of music that is perfect for cranking on these crisp autumn mornings.
Sustain is out now via Heavy Machinery Records
You can keep up with all that Cale does via his Facebook and Soundcloud
Note: interview edited for brevity and clarity
Words by Josh Pryor