Memory, mercury and music: the curious case of Obscura Hail

Originally the solo project of songwriter Sean Conran, Obscura Hail didn’t fully take form until their single ‘Kill Streak’ resulted in an invite to play at BIGSOUND in 2018. Since then, they’ve gone from a quirky bedroom goth-pop project to a small phenomenon gracing the indie scene. 

After years of releasing countless hours of music online, the band signed with Dot Dash Recordings to release their EP Zero last year. Their latest track ‘Doomer’, the lead single of their next EP Siren, with its fuzzy guitars, timely lyrics and tasteful melodies, further proves that this band just getting bigger and better. 

The thing that is so refreshing about Obscura Hail is that they truly are a different breed of musician. They are prolific to the point of rivalling a Gizzard album cycle. They don’t get caught up in industry pedantry. They don’t write music for radio. They don’t have any interest in writing that hook or looking a certain way – that being said, I’m definitely here for that goth-pop aesthetic. 

They are, simply, Obscura Hail. 

Their willingness to just-do-them set them apart from the industry crowd at BIGSOUND two years ago and did again at last year’s BIGSOUND, when they were invited back after signing with Sunset Pig and Remote Control. But even the industry buzz didn’t deter them from remaining steadfast in their philosophy of independence.

They staved off offers from labels and management for a long time until they finally found the right fit with Sunset Pig alongside A Swayze & The Ghosts and Hobson’s Bay Coast Guard.

“It’s rare to find people who believe in you,” says Sean. “Getting people to talk about you can be an expensive endeavour. But Kieran and Chris from Sunset Pig came to us and wanted to work with us. They’re really grounded and really respectful and work really, really hard. Kieran wants to check in with us constantly. And they care about us. They know if we’re in a good place, they’re in a good place.” 

You get the feeling from Sean that he has a sturdy Bullshit Detector. 

“The first year we went to BIGSOUND everyone was always like, ‘What’s your story? You need a story to market,” he says, shaking his head with a dismissive smile.

The irony is that Sean actually has quite a fascinating one. 

When he was younger he had terrible tooth issues and always kept getting cheap fillings that never lasted. One day his dentist suggested a stronger filling that would last much longer, the only catch was that it contained mercury. 

You heard – mercury. 

“And I was like, ‘Why would you put that in someone’s mouth if it truly was dangerous?’” He says, half smiling, half confused. “So I got it.”

As time went on, Sean started to think he was forgetting things. Important things. And then, after doing some research, he found the link between memory loss, Alzheimer’s and mercury poisoning.

“That’s when I started getting really afraid. So I started writing things down and tried to come up with the best way to remember specific moments or things that impacted me. The notes would be like markers to remember everything else that was going on. Like a starting point for a memory.”

Then Sean started recording music every night incase he forgot the songs he’d written. 

“I got inspired and after a while it became less about that fear of memory loss and more about the enjoyment of writing and recording music every day.”

Of course, if the tooth cracks, a little bit of mercury can get into Sean’s system at anytime. He seems unfazed by this information. 

Tamara, who co-writes, plays bass and sings, says that Sean might be on to something with the music. “A lot of patients with Alzheimer’s only respond to music and it takes them back to a time they remember.”

“That was the idea,” Sean says. “At the end of my life I could put everything I’d written or recorded on shuffle. I have a No-Waste Policy, everything goes somewhere.” 

He pauses. “I hope I go blind before I go deaf.” 

This idea of a sonic photo album isn’t just being prepared for future Sean, it’s available to everyone. Of course, it’s on all the regular streaming platforms, but there’s also a little more on Obscura Hail’s Patreon: a platform where fans can subscribe directly to the artist so that the artist can keep producing material each week. It’s also a platform that is now proving vital in keeping income streams open to artists during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“I already had a heap of demos and I knew that I could keep up with that process. And it would encourage me to make an EP every week or at least once a month. When I do feel like writing, I write a lot.” 

At the time of the interview, Sean had 165 volumes of music available on Patreon. That adds up to be about 500 songs in three years. We’re talking Beatles numbers. 

‘Some of them aren’t very good,’ he laughs. 

But he loves it. It takes the pressure off the artists. Instead of having to spend months painstakingly working on a single, Sean can do a day in his home studio, write a song, mix it and send it out into the world before dinner.  

Sean has never deliberately written songs for radio play. He only writes what he wants to write and, if it gets air time, that’s a bonus. 

“I get the most enjoyment out of someone listening to it and going ‘this is pretty good’. Instead of someone trying to think of a future for it – like a label or a publisher – they’re just people enjoying it. And that’s what the subscribers on Patreon are like, they just enjoy it.”

Obscura Hail are a band of quirks and secrets but none might be as strange or as cool as their recording process. Sean and Tamara use a binaural microphone to record all of Obscura Hail’s songs. Some might know binaural microphones from the global movement of ASMR that has taken YouTube by storm over the last seven or eight years. But Sean isn’t one for the soothing tingles.

“I was around some people who were into ASMR and they were talking about the microphones and technology it used. I’m not really into the types of ASMR content that people were creating with the technology, but I did see a potential there. I started thinking that it might get me one step closer to capturing a sound I wanted to capture. It captures sounds the same way that you would hear them.”

Sean and Tamara press record and walk around the room, looping the sounds of anything they think might sound good. Table tapping, rustling leaves, the sound of clinking cups, breathing – literally anything.  

“I started walking around my living room but then I took it outside and into the woods and started writing a few tracks there,” he says. “I started taking it into different spaces and thinking more about the environment I was in. It made me think more about the place I lived in. It opened up a whole new way of writing songs. It sets each track in a scene.”

There’s a lot that sets Obscura Hail apart from the music scene, but it’s rare that you find an artist so truly inspired by their curiosity for the world around them. Their zest for the strange and seemingly mundane continues to drive the music, and their openness to the possibilities of sound will hold them in good stead for years to come. 

Check out ‘Doomer’ from Obscura Hail’s upcoming EP Siren — out September 18th.