“A bit of gallows humour that Liam and I enjoy is that for a few thousand people in the world we’re their favourite band that nobody knows about,” says Australian Davey Ray Moor from his home in southern England. “And that’s kind of cool, I don’t mind that. At least we are well loved and everything else is just luck.”
Liam McKahey and Davey Ray Moor of CousteauX.
This “favourite band” is CousteauX (the X is silent), purveyors of what The New York Times described as “dangerously seductive atmospheres” but which could also be called capital-R romantic and dramatic pop songs.
It’s a group that these days consists of multi-instrumentalist songwriter Moor (and his signature flugelhorn, the instrument that also defines a classic Burt Bacharach song) and Canberra-based Irishman and singer of resonant low tones, Liam McKahey.
They’ve been working together on and off for almost a quarter of a century, initially as the five-piece Cousteau in London and now at opposite ends of the Commonwealth with a bonus X.
And no, you’ve probably not heard of them, though critics and fans across Europe and the US have been in love since the single from the band’s 1999 self-titled debut The Last Good Day Of The Year helped sell more than 200,000 albums on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was a pretty good start, but “it was never going to be mainstream was it?” says McKahey without rancour.
Is that true? Maybe. Pop songs rooted in a time when orchestras and suits were matched by quiet intensity and big melodies, sung in a deep voice that is almost ripe for parody and packed with lyrics that err on the side of big emotion. It’s not exactly trap beats or Tones And I.
But there are people around who like their Leonard Cohens and Nick Caves, their old Scott Walkers and Dusty Springfields, maybe even their Jacques Brels and Francoise Hardys.
For those people, Moor and McKahey have a new album called Stray Gods. It’s pure CousteauX, confirming that while they may live thousands of kilometres apart and have fallen out several times (“quite epic fallings-out” according to McKahey), musically they are a perfect fit.
That’s not just because McKahey calls the Australian “my favourite songwriter bar none … comparable to Jimmy Webb and those classic songwriters”, but because their natural tendencies balance each other out.
“I’ve come to understand in many art forms, but particularly music and songs, it is sometimes a juxtaposition of things … a darkness and a masculinity that Liam really hits it with, makes something happen differently to anything I would have done naturally,” says Moor. “It’s grounding, a bit like Lennon and McCartney, or Waters and Gilmour [of Pink Floyd], where you pull them apart and one becomes very sweet and the other becomes very bitter.”
Without that balance, in the wrong hands, Moor’s songs could turn into something florid and false or, as the writer himself says, “it just becomes pretty music then”. And that was never the plan, not when the band started with Moor as the singer, nor when on their first masterpiece, 2002’s majestic second album, Sirena, Moor was writing songs specifically for McKahey’s voice “and we realised that that was it”.
“That’s why the second album had a darker, deeper, more ’70s soul kind of quality about it,” Moor explains. “Liam, beside his baritone that immediately impresses, has this third octave up in this Sam Cooke sort of register that really excited me. Suddenly, I had all this variation.”
And now, two albums into CousteauX since re-forming in 2017, Moor is exploring “if I can absorb some of that outsider, darker character that Liam enjoys in Johnny Cash and Nick Cave’s music, wind it tighter into what’s unique about Liam’s character”.
This has McKahey excited, gesturing towards the home studio space in which Moor is sitting for this three-way conversation, the room McKahey calls “that sorcerer’s den, where all the magic happens”.
“This is where he writes, produces, masters, does everything in that little space up there,” the Irishman says, adding with maybe another dose of that gallows humour. “And, basically, I just kind of swan in at the end, with my frock coat, and warble a bit, and get all the praise.”
Stray Gods is out now
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