A sense of mystery has shrouded The Middle East's musical career to this point. What we do know is that the indie-folk collective formed in Townsville, Queensland in around 2005, after the members found themselves constantly playing in each others' bands. Core songwriters Rohin Jones and Jordan Ireland were drawn together out of a mutual desire to better themselves as writers; they assembled a team of collaborators around them to record their self-released debut, The Recordings of The Middle East, in 2008.

Though containing eight songs and running to 52 minutes, the band soon shied away from calling it their debut album. After releasing those eight tracks locally, the band amicably parted ways due to Ireland traveling to Europe. In the meantime, word escaped Townsville that The Middle East were worth hearing. Their debut landed on a desk at Spunk Records and - after the track 'Blood' was added to a Spunk singles comp, was deemed worthy of a 2009 re-release under the Spunk banner. After Ireland returned home, it seemed like a good decision to get the band back together.

Three songs were cut from the initial album for the EP, which (confusingly) retained the same name. But one, in particular, would reach ears across the world. A slow-burner in both musical nature and popularity, 'Blood' (and its ethereal, fingerpicked cousin in 'The Darkest Side'), soon attracted the ears of the nations broadcasters and wider music industry. Fans started flocking and soon 'Blood' was being heard on films, American television shows and TV commercials for European banks; it also polled at #64 in the triple j Hottest 100 of 2009. The Middle East then spent the majority of 2009 and 2010 touring Australia and the wider world, playing at the SXSW festival and picking up shows with the likes of Grizzly Bear, Mumford & Sons, and Doves. Despite their relative ubiquity among indie-folk circles, still little was known about the band.

April 2011 sees the release of their proper debut album, I Want That You Are Always Happy. Containing 13 new songs, it's the sound of a young band pushing the boundaries of what they want their music to represent, as well as exploring their bands ability to create a united front. Three days after the album's release, TheVine connected with a humble but semi-reluctant co-frontman Rohin Jones (he and Jordan Ireland are credited as the eight-piece band's sole songwriters in the LP liner notes); a man whose answers are somewhat guarded and circumspect. Throughout our interview, "I don't know" is a recurring response; he also has the curious habit of giving a sharp whistle when confronted with a question that prompts him to search his long-term memory.

We discuss the band's mystery, democracy, religious undertones, their hometown of Townsville, an uncertain future and Jones' (above, second from right) secret hardcore past.

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Rohin, you've been in this position before, where you've just released a collection of your music out into the world. What's different this time around?

Umm... [laughs] Well I guess the first time we released, it was giving it out to 30 or 40 of our friends. It was a whole lot less vulnerable experience. That's one big difference.

Is there a greater pressure or expectation placed upon the band this time around, or do you try to put that out of your mind?

I don't think there's any industry pressure; to 'conquer the industry', or be some big, successful act. I think the pressure of the last two years came from trying to produce something that we thought was credible, and up to our potential.

The first time I saw you was in March 2009, when you supported The Devoted Few at The Troubadour in Brisbane. I think that was right before you hit triple j airplay, and everything else that went with that. What do you recall of that time in the band's career?

It was kind of fun. Jord had just come back from Germany, and we picked up where we left off; just playing around. It was nice to play music with old friends again, after having a bit of time off. It was a good time.

Was there a sense among the band that you could become bigger?

Not really, hey. I don't know how to explain it, but... I didn't expect that EP to [do anything beyond] just hearing it when I went home, because my parents were playing it. That's about as much as I was thinking at the time. I don't think we anticipated anything, to be honest.

That original LP release in 2008 is 52 minutes long. Do you consider it an EP, or an album?

I definitely don't consider it an album. It's definitely not good enough [laughs]. I guess we wrote a lot longer songs back then.

When you listen to that first release, what do you hear?

[Whistles] To be honest, I haven't listened to it in years [laughs]. Usually I get super-close to projects when I'm working on them, so instead of hearing a song, I'll just hear the mix between the two stereo guitars, or something like that. I'll be like, "Ehh, we didn't really get that right". Or I'll forget about a part, and go, "Oh, that's right, that part's in there."


The Middle East - 'Blood'

Around that time information on the band was hard to come by. All that most people knew was that you were from Townsville - that the band broke up at some stage before getting back together. Was keeping quiet and mysterious a conscious strategy at the time?

Yes and no. I don't know. I guess we never really set out to be 'in the industry', so to speak. Time can just pass by in Townsville, when you can just kick around playing music. Whatever else happens in other parts of the country is cool, but you can either let it in, or be pretty isolated. I think we just picked up where we left off; we were just kicking around, playing to our friends. It wasn't this massive change, like "Let's go and do a seven year tour!", or something.

But there was a lot of interest in The Middle East at the time, and not just from 'the industry'; you had a lot of fans who wanted to find out more about the band.

Yeah, that's true. I think we probably weren't that comfortable with people knowing much, to be honest. If I can remember correctly.

Are you the main interviewer; the band's mouthpiece, at the moment?

Oh, only because Jordan's over in friggin' Thailand on a farm. He left me with all the work to do. He always picks the best times to go away.

When Jordan got back from Germany, was that the moment when you all decided that you were going to throw your collective energy behind the band as a full-time thing?

Well, not really. It kind of built over time. When Jord came back, like I said, we just started playing music together again. It definitely was at hobby status then. It took maybe 6-8 months until me and Jordan quit our jobs, because we wanted to write music. It wasn't a big, "hoo-ha - let's do it!"

Is it the same situation with the rest of the band, now; you've all quit your jobs, and you're all full-time musicians?

Nah, most of us have got jobs. We're just living, you know.

Is being a full-time musician as enjoyable as you'd hoped it would be?

I think there's pros and cons about every lifestyle. I've got a lot of time on my hands, but I'm pretty dedicated to continuing to write music. It's a beautiful thing, but, look: I've got no money, and there's obviously not a lot of security for the future. That's another con, but I'm pretty content, hey. I think my personality type, and most of life that I see as important... it's good.

During Big Sound 2009, in Brisbane, I saw you and the rest of the band having lunch with Robert Schneider [frontman of US indie band Apples in Stereo, Schneider was a co-founder of the influential Elephant 6 Recording Company, as well as the producer of the infamous Neutral Milk Hotel album In The Aeroplane Over the Sea]. What did you learn from Robert?

That he looks exactly like our drummer [Mike]. Like, ridiculously. We didn't really... I mean, we were just having a catch-up. He was just a super-cool guy, obviously. The albums that he's produced are some of the best albums. That Neutral Milk Hotel album is just incredible. But we weren't sucking him for his information, or anything like that. It was just a bit of a hang-out because he looked like Mike, and we wanted to laugh at him.


L: Robert Schneider R: Mike from The Middle East (Pic: Justin Edwards)

I was wondering whether Robert had became something of a mentor for the group, but I suppose not.

Yeah, nah. I haven't even seen him since.

Are there other musicians who've taken the time to help you out with advice over the last couple of years?

Um... [whistles]. None really spring to mind. I mean, we've got some good friends, but I think... I don't know. We're maybe a little bit small-town kids; a bit insular in our thinking. Or maybe that's an overstatement. But I don't know. I don't recall any conversations with anyone sitting down and going, "Hey, you should do this!"

Have you given much thought to how the band's approach to songwriting has developed since that first release in 2008?

Yeah, a fair bit of thought. I guess more observations of how things out of my control have evolved, and affected the recording of this album. In a perfect world, we'd probably be doing things pretty similar [ to the first one]. But because of the touring schedule, and seven busy lives, it was a very... interesting, and very taxing environment to record in. That changed the writing process a fair bit.

I know a lot of musicians find it difficult to write on the road. Is that true for you?

Yeah, I think I do. Some of the songs were written on the road, and for me, I can just tell: "Yeah, that was written on the road." Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, that's up to [the listener]. For me, it diminishes my capacity to give the song time to breathe, or something.


The Middle East - 'Jesus Came To My Birthday Party'

Looking at the liner notes in the new album, I notice that Jordan and yourself are published by different publishers. Why is that?

Oh, no. I'm published and he's not at the moment. I just wanted to... because I do a lot of other stuff as well; I'm always writing, so I just wanted to find someone that I really wanted to work with. He's was a sweet dude, so I didn't really have a problem with working with [Jordan]. We both write separately aside from The Middle East, as well.

I like how the CD disc itself is printed in a very bare, traditional manner; listing the album title and all of the song names. It reminds me of my parents' CD collection. Why'd you make that decision, instead of printing a disc with artwork?

Me and Jordan were talking about it; we were looking at... sometimes when I pick up a [Bob] Dylan CD and look at it, I just want to listen to it. Even if I've listened to it like ten times. It just looks so damn good. And maybe that's because Dylan added the character to that [printing] format, or someone like Leonard Cohen did the same thing. I just dig that.

Religious overtones crop up fairly often in the band's songs. Was this a conscious songwriting decision by both yourself and Jordan? I notice it occurs in both of your songs.

A lot of the decisions in the songwriting process are fairly intuitive. Often, you make decisions intuitively, and it's a bit of a revealing snapshot of what's going on in someone's head, or what sort of things are in their lives. It's a pretty natural process, I think. Writing a song can be sometimes...things that are a part of your life just go into a song. It's a natural progression, I guess.

Have you experienced any downsides, or negative responses to writing so overtly about your religion?

I'm not sure we write overtly about religious things. In a certain sense, that we're not going, "Everyone be Christian!" or anything like that. I think it's fairly - what would be the word - I don't know. I don't think it's that outright. I know religion has got a lot to answer for in terms of the world's pain, so to speak, so I guess some people are probably irked by it. I'm happy for them to get whatever they want out of the song. I'm not saying one thing and hoping everyone gets it, you know?

A few artists have told me that the goal of the songwriter is to move people. To make them feel something. And that the worst thing a songwriter can do is make a listener feel apathetic, or feel nothing toward their songs. Would you agree with that?

That's interesting. I don't know. I can understand that, and I can dig it, I guess. But often, when I'm listening to music, I like being confused by someone, and not being left with one particular flavour or taste in my mouth, you know? With some sort of confusion there; that, to me, is super-cool.

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