Not so sunny after all: An update on Ball Park Music’s new album from isolation

Sam Cromack on the trying creation of their most eclectic album yet, being inspired by Nick Cave and the pandemic’s worrying impact on the band’s future

The world is no longer ‘Mostly Sunny’ for Ball Park Music. That phrase, cribbed from a Brisbane weather forecast, at first seemed a perfect mirror for the beloved indie pop band’s peppy yet melancholic outlook.

So the band decided to name their new record ‘Mostly Sunny’, announcing it in March with the single ‘Spark Up!’. Fans – dispirited by the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing rules that brought the music industry and life in general to a standstill – received the news like a care package.

But something felt wrong. As they worked to finish the album in isolation, frontman Sam Cromack and the band knew they’d created something special. “This album feels different, we know it in our heart… We realised there was this overarching narrative to it and we just wanted to change it,” he told NME Australia in mid-April.

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“We’re just seeing everything in a brand-new light all of a sudden.”

That’s why Ball Park Music’s sixth studio album has been renamed to ‘Ball Park Music’ – fitting for a hard-won record that continues to expand the band’s sound, commercial considerations be damned.

The making of ‘Ball Park Music’ was, to quote Cromack, “not easy or fun”. Work began in late 2019 during Australia’s second hottest summer on record. The band optimistically moved studios to a larger room in the same industrial estate in Stafford, Brisbane, but “conditions were just shitty”.

“It was brutally hot, the air conditioner hardly worked. We were surrounded by way more rehearsal rooms with drummers practising all the time, there was a mechanic on the other side of the walls,” Cromack said.

“I thought I was going to lose my fucking mind. Like multiple times. Sometimes I just wanted to cry, I was just trying so hard.”

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Despite the trying conditions, Ball Park Music did lengthy improvised jams in their studio, attempting to recreate the giddy energy of their live shows. ‘Spark Up’ was one result, spiralling out from a “ridiculous disco-flavoured jam”. It’s a song Cromack worried might be too cheesy, “up until its release”.

At the same time, Ball Park Music were determined to “lean into [the] strengths” of each song and embrace the record in all its multitudes. “We wanted to almost treat [the album] like a mixtape or a playlist,” Cromack said.

“Something we’ve always done in the past is go, ‘Oh well, how can we gel this with the rest of the record’. And this time we were doing the opposite. We were like – ‘Let’s just put our blinders on and go deep on this particular song’. It feels even more eclectic than our other records.”

Accordingly, the new album seems mounted on a series of contradictions. Despite the modern “mixtape” analogy, Cromack says they referenced Neil Young’s 1974 classic ‘On The Beach’, which begins with the rollicking ‘Walk On’ before winding down to the acousto-epic ‘Ambulance Blues’. And the most immediate surprise of ‘Ball Park Music’, Cromack said, is how mellow much of it is compared to the band’s bombastic standards. At the same time, acoustic guitars are “mostly gone” from the record, aside from the closing track, ‘Turning Zero’. Fans can also expect the longest song the band have ever written, ‘Cherub’.

What, if any, is the through line of the album?

“It just feels like the most Ball Park record we’ve ever made,” Cromack laughed.

“I really feel like I’ve had less commercial consideration in making this. On the last record, ‘Good Mood’ – even though it is possibly my favourite – I was trying to write big pop songs again. I felt like I needed to and I wanted to… [But] we’ve been around for ages now, this is our sixth record, I just want to do whatever feels good to me and I don’t really care much beyond that. We’ve already got our own natural style which always ends up being poppier than we realise… so fuck it, let’s just do whatever we want.”

During the writing of the record, Cromack was confined to his home for non-coronavirus reasons: the birth of his daughter. He said his usual thematic concerns of “anxiety, depression and whatever” simmered in curious ways as he grappled with parenthood, resulting in lyrics that now freakishly also appear to address the pandemic. Take one song’s climactic refrain: “I’ve got to get out of this bedroom!

“Maybe there’s been a pandemic in my mind for years. It’s eerie just how much of it fits into the current context. It feels like all my despair finally lined up with everybody else,” Cromack laughed.

On 2018’s ‘Good Mood’, Cromack had tried to be more direct with his songwriting, a new philosophy that precipitated the shocking use of the word “cunt” in ‘Exactly How You Are’. This time ’round, Cromack has been finding inspiration in Nick Cave’s lyrical fan-correspondence series, The Red Hand Files.

“I feel like I enjoy his writing more than his music – not to take away from his music, I love it too,” Cromack said. “But man, just to see what the guy thinks and how he writes, that’s really kept me feeling on my toes and with fresh ideas and dialled into what I want to do.”

And so Cromack dug for the essence of what the band’s music “should be”. His original demos for the new album were littered with the same Auto-Tune phrases that surprised fans on ‘Good Mood’, as he binged on Post Malone and Kanye West’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’. But Cromack eventually felt it was no longer the right direction.

“I felt like I nailed it on a song like ‘Frank’ on ‘Good Mood’. But [on] other songs like ‘Dreaming Of America’ – which I don’t dislike – as time has gone on, that song sits a bit funny for me,” he explained.

“I think I had to look a few songs in the eye and say, ‘Are you a Ball Park song? Maybe you’re not.’”

When we will actually see the album the band have laboured over is unclear. Cromack is finishing it in a small home set-up during isolation, receiving back-up vocals recorded on bassist Jen Boyce and guitarist Dean Hanson’s phones, and sending files to mix engineers in Sydney and mastering engineers in Tasmania. He can’t, however, guarantee a release before the end of isolation – whenever that may be.

“We’re just chugging ahead to finish it and get it into production as soon as we can, so that when we release it is flexible,” Cromack explained.

“Keeping in mind that the wait time on production for things like vinyl is the best part of four months, we’re hustling to get it finished just so we can have a release date in the back half of the year.”

Trying to coordinate the release from isolation is another task not as easy as it looks. An enforced border closure between New South Wales (where Boyce now lives) and the band’s native Queensland means regular video conferencing is the band’s new normal.

“That feels like, oh my god, will we really get together again?” Cromack said.

“I think we’re starting to really miss each other. It’s so funny, I’m sure you feel the same: being in the same space as your friends and family feels like this distant memory. We’re really excited to hang out again together, and just get coffee and chew the fat.

“[At the moment], it’s more figuring out: what does it mean to release music in this strange time? And how do you find the momentum that you’d usually find?”

Generating momentum without performing live is inordinately difficult for all artists at the moment, and Ball Park Music are not exempt. Livestreams are not the easiest for artists to monetise (unless partnering with a brand or pleading for donations) – a quandary that Australian artists like Kira Puru and Sarah Thompson of Camp Cope have begun to ponder in public.

Cromack, who played the second edition of weekly Instagram festival ISOL-AID, has long had his own misgivings about livestreams. (“It’s not like you deserve applause, but applause is like the natural sound, even if it’s a small amount, that completes a performance. I can’t describe how weird it is to not have it there.”)

One significant revenue raiser for Ball Park Music of late has been merch branded with the title of their hit song ‘It’s Nice To Be Alive’, which fans, Cromack has observed, get a kick out of wearing during a global pandemic.

Regardless, the band are still counting on the return of the touring circuit for their own survival.

“It feels almost comical that we entered the industry just as iTunes took over and then streaming. We watched record sales disappear before our eyes. Our records have climbed higher in the charts and sold fewer copies,” Cromack said.

“We relied almost exclusively on live income to do this at a professional level and now that has been wiped out for basically a year. That’s life, these things happen. But in real terms, we couldn’t sustain this long term, or it would look very different. We would be putting in resumes to get day jobs and we would maybe do Ball Park Music on the side because we love it. But if this was the future, then yeah, hell no. We can’t survive without shows. We certainly can’t survive with livestreams.”

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