Rock and Roll and Babysitting: An Interview with Al Montfort of Terry (and most other Melbourne Bands).

On the eve of Terry’s fourth album coming, we spoke to Al Montfort, who was preparing not only for release day, but also to become a father to the band’s second child.

Photo by Oscar Perry (L to R: Zephyr Pavey, Al Montfort, Xanthe Waite, Amy Hill) | Words: Lloyd Bolton

‘Miracles’ opens with a scratchy but immediately comprehensible rocking punk riff like many an indie album before it, before the bottom falls out of the tune with an off-key synth wail and the happy chaos of Terry takes hold. Here opens ‘Call Me Terry’, the fourth album from Melbourne four-piece Terry, which follows a naming pattern established by previous albums ‘Terry HQ’ (2016), ‘Remember Terry’ (2017), ‘I’m Terry’(2018) and EP ‘Who’s Terry?’ (2019). It is a cultivated carefree opening, defiantly playing to a set of rules that have been invented and revised by the band’s members over a long haze of years.

Terry is composed of two couples: Xanthe Waite and Zephyr Pavey, and Amy Hill and Al Montfort. It is Montfort with whom I had the chance to discuss this new release, and how it places in his ever-growing musical universe. Legendarily formed as four friends with other projects ongoing who wanted to play together for the fun of it and travel the world off the back of it, Terry are a fairy tale success story on their own terms. They have gained international attention for their charmingly instinctive melodic punk and playful lyrics, which swing between punning silliness and sidelong glances at Australia’s political turmoil. The band are signed to Upset the Rhythm in the UK off the back of their work with Total Control, with whom Montfort and Pavey played. Through the label, they have toured several times around the UK, sharing bills with legendary acts like The Rebel and The Homosexuals.

“The music. The mullet. The man. The legend.”

I dare not attempt to figure what number this new Terry release pushes Al Montfort’s discography to. I expect he could himself only hazard a guess. Responsible in some capacity for countless contributions to the celebrated canon of Australian indie music of this century, Montfort has been a member of Dick Diver, Total Control, Lower Plenty, UV Race, Russell St. Bombings, East Link, Straightjacket Nation, Chateau, Truffle Pigs and Sleeper and Snake as well as Terry and likely others not known to either myself or Discogs. This does not even begin to take into account his credits as producer. One begins to understand why one of the first things that comes up when you Google his name is a 2014 Facebook page putting him forward to be awarded ‘Australian Man of the Year’. The description captures it: “The music. The mullet. The man. The legend.”

It is a few weeks before ‘Call Me Terry’ is to be released, and Montfort joins me on call from Melbourne. He is used to bridging the intercontinental time zone gap, he explains, with Dick Diver now spread between Melbourne (himself and Steph Hughes), London (Al McKay) and Stockholm (Rupert Edwards). “The band chat usually goes off at around 8 in the morning before [Al and Rupe] have hit the hay.”

The rock and roll lifestyle is not quite what it once was for Montfort, who takes this latest release in his stride among the routine business of older life. On Instagram stories, you’ll as likely see him performing in someone’s garden with kids running around the stage as in one of Melbourne’s sticky trendy venues. Today, he has been out babysitting, “We went out and played mini golf and went to Northland shopping centre, it’s been a pretty good day.” Last night was a friend’s wedding, for which Montfort played in the band “but didn’t hang around too long.” Though he is not exactly slowing down his musical output, his artistic life has been recontextualised as the crowd has gotten older. Alongside work in Terry, he has recently been playing with his partner Amy as Sleeper and Snake, but he explains, “We’re just playing afternoon gigs these days”. Amy, he reveals, is seven months pregnant. The child will be their first and Terry’s second. Since the third of their album-a-year run, 2018’s ‘I’m Terry’, the band has been slowed down by the shifting forces in their lives. Even before the pandemic, things were changing, with Pavey and Waite moving to New South Wales to have their own child.

“The songs would change quite a lot as we reflected on them.”

Al sees the band’s early success in functioning as a unit down to “the friendships that existed for quite a long time before the band started; we’re very comfortable being in a room or a van together.” On the first three albums, their process had hinged on working up ideas quickly and collectively, as might be felt on the major scale riff of ‘Rio’ or the instinctive call and response of debut single ‘Talk About Terry’. “I don’t necessarily think that ‘settling’ for a first take is the worst thing”, Montfort considers. “I don’t think the other records are less quality because we had an energy around them.”

The new album involved more gestation, partly imposed by circumstances, partly because of the absence any such imposition. “There was more time around it, it wasn’t, ‘Let’s make a decision on this now because we have to get this record done in two weeks because we’ve got a Europe tour in three months and the masters have to be done in this amount of time.” This space was brought on by the band members’ separation and cemented by the pandemic and Australia’s lockdown measures. “We write songs as duos quite a lot, but when we were living in the same city, we would then develop those songs all together in rehearsals. We would rehearse quite a lot because we were playing every third weekend and we were touring once a year, so it was quite an ongoing process.” ‘Call Me Terry’ was produced away from that rhythm and did not quite feel ready after the initial recording. “On this record we worked on songs individually and sent them to each other. We recorded the LP [as a band] but then the songs would change quite a lot as we reflected on them and added overdubs. We reflected on them quite a lot and would work on them separately.”

Listening to ‘Call Me Terry’, one can begin to hear where extra ideas have filtered in, idiosyncratic and individual rather than feeling a part of a full-band performance. ‘Market’ opens with a bouncing buzzing synth line before easing back into a mellowed-out rock and roll groove, which eventually reintroduces and contextualises that opening. ‘Gronks’ opens in the song’s reverb chamber, with howls of saxophone recalling Montfort’s experimentally drone-based album as part of duo Chateau, before a squelching guitar line restores Terry’s form of normality.

“You develop the sound in contrast to everything else you’re doing.”

With so many projects on the go, it is difficult to imagine how Montfort gets his head into gear each day to work towards any particular brief. He has bounced between the spartan internationalist folk of Lower Plenty to the sleek synth-punk of Total Control to the jangle pop perfection of Dick Diver. Looking back on what it was that Terry had to add to his CV, he considers that the band largely came together in opposition to what each member was already working on. “You kind of develop the sound in contrast to everything else that you’re doing.” Around the formation of Terry, “Amy was doing a more country band, Xanthe was playing with a few people from the rock scene, Zephyr and I had just finished doing East Link and we’d just come off the Total Control tour. We didn’t want to do anything so synthy or post-punky.” With the band now long-established, those considerations feel less necessary, though, with the style coming from a setup already in operation. “You don’t write like ‘let’s write a Terry song’ or ‘let’s write a Dick Diver song’.” That said, every now and then “there’s songs that don’t really fit in there and I might have to text Zephyr and say, y’know, “Do you think this is a Total Control one or do you think this is a Terry song?”

Montfort’s output as writer and producer speaks of his own irrepressible energy, but also of the vitality of the Melbourne music scene within which he works. As an overseas fan, I watched nervously as long and cautious lockdowns suffocated the city’s nightlife throughout the pandemic. Montfort assures me live music “came back with a bit of a vengeance.” JobKeeper, the Australian equivalent to the UK’s furlough scheme, meant that many had even more free time to write music and organise shows. “I was always getting emails from bookers saying, ‘The restrictions are gonna end! Would you be up for a gig?’ It always felt like there was a lot going on or at least coming up. When the restrictions would end there would be gigs all the time and not many venues really shut down.” The city also continues to be enlivened by newcomers, welcomed in from all over the world. “A lot of people come to Melbourne for music work and have stayed. We’re very lucky to have them, it’s a brain drain from everywhere else’s creative pool.”

Looking to the future of the city’s output, I sense there is no better man to ask than one responsible for recording so many new acts. Montfort mentions a band he has been recording called Silver, who are “a bit Rocket from the Tombs, a little bit Pere Ubu.” He’s also excited by a Melbourne band called Vampire with a new LP freshly recorded and teases an LP in the works with Amy Hill and Steph Hughes (of Dick Diver) as Truffle Pigs. I tentatively ask about my personal favourites, the time zone-spanning Dick Diver. “We’re still a band, we’ve never broken up. We recorded an album five years ago; it just needs a few more vocal parts. We recorded heaps of songs; we just don’t have a name for an LP.”

While we wait for that title to hit stores (get it!?), we can be grateful for plenty of other treasures from the Montfort extended universe. ‘Call Me Terry’ is a fabulous collection, clocking in at a tight twenty-seven minutes. The time to evolve the songs beyond their conventional band arrangements, to chase sounds down rabbit holes, has been well spent. All together, the album takes the band’s punk essentialism and refreshes it with a new experimental ambition. The band have managed a few album launch shows in Australia in spite of Amy being “seven months pregnant and wanting to be in bed”, but we must expect it will be a little longer until they return to the UK. “We love to travel, and we’d love to come back” Montfort assures me. “We’ll have to see what it’s like now, having two children between the band.”