Joe McKee: Aussie Dream-Rocker Breaks Fourth Wall

Perth crowd-invader’s delicate, crepuscular searches for lost time.

Joe McKee

Fact Sheet

  • For fans of: Richard Hawley, Scott Walker, Ed Harcourt.
  • Born in Berkshire in 1984, his family relocated to Perth, Australia when he was five, and after moving schools as a teenager he made friends with fellow “outsiders” to form a band at age 14, who later became Snowman. Three albums and considerable acclaim back home followed before their 2011 split.
  • KEY TRACKS: Lunar Sea, Darling Hills, Blue Valeria.

Some singing voices have been described as sounding like they’re sat in your lap. And live, Joe McKee likes to ensure he gets as close as possible to this scenario, short of physical assault. When MOJO sees his show in the basement of an East London pub, McKee abandons the stage in mid-song, leaving his Gretsch and its crystalline guitar patterns to loop behind him, and sits down next to a girl in the audience to croon the next few lines of his new single Darling Hills into her ear.

Seconds later, he is back behind the microphone stand, eyes closed, firmly enveloped in his performance bubble, lost in a sonic landscape in which he is “nine miles out in space”. The ripples of chatter that initially lapped at the edges of the room have been silenced. That trip to the bar will have to wait. He waits for the applause. “Shhh,” he grins mischievously when it arrives, and carries on playing.

The 28-year-old Australian began making these fearless raids back and forth through the fourth wall as a means of connecting with audiences that could easily find their attention wandering when hearing the atmospheric, ambient dream-rock of his debut solo album Burning Boy.

“I’d get booed and have glasses thrown at me… Danger Appeals.”

Having relocated from a “nice way of life” in Perth to London with experimental rock quartet Snowman in 2008, he found himself alone after their 2011 split. Needing to “create a new world” for his music to inhabit, he looked homewards, and began to dream up mirage-like musical visions of Western Australia’s sun-scorched landscape.“I don’t think I realised at the time, but I was very homesick,” he admits, glancing out onto the puddle-pocked streets outside the venue. “So it was like transcendental meditation for me to write these songs sitting at a window in Walthamstow.”

Joe McKee Burning Boy
McKee’s solo debut, Burning Boy (2013)

The result is an often breathtaking vision that recalls Scott Walker’s most widescreen reveries set to a soundtrack of sparse, spaced-out guitar chords.

The album written, he needed to work out a way of making it all work live, while simultaneously making life difficult again, by returning home and setting up a tour of rural Australian towns. Naturally, the response was mixed.

“I’d play local lawn bowls clubs or pubs, and get booed and have glasses thrown at me,” he says. “At first I sat there in my world and took the brunt of what came my way, but once I learned how to sing those songs, I needed to connect more with the audience, so that’s what led me to go up and – sometimes literally – grab people.”

For all that, the Joe McKee experience is a warm, embracing one, rather than one of confrontation. “Danger appeals to me,” he says. “I remember seeing Nirvana as a teenager, feeling confused and filthy… but kind of thrilled.”

Listen to Burning Boy here: