One & Dones: Yves Klein Blue – 'Ragged and Ecstatic'

In One And Dones, we take a look at Aussie artists who released one cracking album, only to break up or disappear. This week it's Yves Klein Blue.

In One And Dones, I'm taking a look at Aussie artists who released one cracking album, only to break up or disappear. To paraphrase an old folk song – where did they come from, and where did they go? 

This week, it's Yves Klein Blue – the adolescent Brisbane indie band that was the last of Australia's 2000s indie rock gold rush. In a special interview with MTV Australia, Michael Tomlinson and Charles Sale from the band reflect on their brief success, and clear the record on their breakup, ten years later.

Yves Klein Blue's namesake is bitterly ironic for a band that only existed for five years. The ultramarine colour, invented by the painter Yves Klein, is the same wet as it is dry; timelessness writ large. The Brisbane quartet wanted to tap into its metaphysical aura and "unlock the world and all its secrets" as a buzzy young rock band – if you ask vocalist Michael Tomlinson. Guitarist Charles Sale calls it "19-year-old pretension". Regardless of intention, the band's name gave it a high culture backdrop that worked in their favour.

Yves Klein Blue's brief tenure at the end of the '00s was a strong capstone to that last golden era of Aussie indie rock, post-The Vines. They were painfully young, bursting onto the scene in their late teens sporting knotted locks of hair and school formal button-up shirts. "Polka" was YKB's world-beating single – the title alluding to its hopping ska guitar, which soundtracked a wry ode to hallucinogenic drugs. It led them to support many international rock revival bands – The Fratellis, The Veils, Franz Ferdinand – and fit with their attitude, trebly guitar twang and smiley vocals. But it all ended in 2011, citing the ultimate rock 'n' roll ambiguous-split-cliché: "creative differences".

Speaking to MTV Australia on Zoom nearly ten years later, Sale and Tomlinson discuss their band's end in the tone of group therapy. Sale still lives in Brisbane, now in the final year of an architecture degree, while Tomlinson is married and living a new life in London. The band's breakup is rendered philosophically by Tomlinson – "My biggest regret is that we broke up, and the thing I'm most thankful for is that we broke up," he says – while Sale is more diminutive, saying he is "too analytical to be angry" about anything. 

They describe their beginnings as typical of the 21st century "boys in the band tradition" – school friends converging on a faint aspiration to be The Strokes. Sale and Tomlinson made some of the first Yves Klein Blue songs as shoddy Garage Band compositions, playing drums on the computer keyboard, before forming in earnest with university friends Sean Cook and Chris Banham in 2005.

Their first shows were a slog thanks to their awkward positioning before the height of the mp3 era, and far before streaming services. To promote themselves, Yves Klein Blue drove thousands of kilometres around the country in a beat-up Honda Odyssey that Tomlinson inherited from his mother. The singer recalls particularly heinous one-day drives to play at The Espy in Melbourne, where they would be paid in nothing but a bin bag full of beer.

"It was this weird period where you were still sort of attempting to physically DIY stuff. There was a culture of pasting posters up – you kind of had to do that. Getting CDs pressed. You had to promo yourself and find your own gigs," Sale explains.

"The network was as good as your knowledge of street press."

The band home-recorded a scratchy EP entitled Yves Klein Blue Draw Attention To Themselves to sell at local shows around Brisbane. Tomlinson did his best hybrid Julian Casablancas-Pete Doherty impression on the highlight, "Streetlamp", an amiable guitar jaunt. Fatefully, they entered MTV Australia's The Lair, a Top of the Pops-style talent show filmed at The Metro Theatre in Sydney, designed to showcase unsigned and breaking artists alongside big-name acts. YKB won a cash prize that they put towards redeveloping the EP into something far glossier, and original. It also caught the attention of Powderfinger manager Paul Pittico, who signed them to his label Dew Process, and eventually managed them himself. Despite it being the beginning of YKB's career in earnest, their label deal would also sow the seeds of their demise.

Buoyed by the success of their EP and Pittico's industry reputation, the band began to accrue those blockbuster support slots with Franz Ferdinand, The Fratellis, The Veils, Ben Kweller and more. Mostly, the international rock acts ignored the young Brisbanites ("The Fratellis didn't say a fuckin' word to us," Sale laughs) though they have fond, albeit hazy memories with Kweller.

"He was great – he taught us how to chew tobacco," Tomlinson says.

"He also showed us how to use codiac – you put it in your teeth, and you just let it go into your bloodstream. But if you swallow it, you used to vomit. So we would be dipping and be like 'oh shit'. But we kept doing it cause Ben was so nice."

Part of what began to separate out YKB's sound from the litany of other guitar bands of the time was their distinctive link to ska. The musical framework was inherited predominantly from The Clash's post-London Calling forays into the genre – "Rudy Can't Fail" in particular. 

"We were into what we would consider cool ska – the vintage ska," Sale says.

"It was also an interest in that socially conscious kind of thing [that was part of ska]...I don't think we were really aware of it at the time – that wasn't really part of the zeitgeist then. But I think we were into some sort of idea of people getting together... We were always trying to be nice to people. We weren't trying to be too cool."

"About The Future", taken from their debut album Ragged and Ecstatic, is a time capsule of that prototypical politi-communal attitude inherited from ska-punk. It articulates youthful disaffection, rueing a complacency borne of the moral reforms of the past; letting social progress lag. "What this generation needs is a war", Tomlinson croons – a sentiment that feels prescient looking back at the last decade of increasing political division, climaxing in the social upheaval of 2020. 

At the time, YKB didn't have much time to critically dwell on the meaning of their songwriting. They were rushed into the studio to record Ragged and Ecstatic in 2008, marked with potential stardom by a partial stint at Fairfax Recordings in Los Angeles. 

"We were completely unprepared," Tomlinson says.

"We'd written some great songs that weren't finished, but we thought they were totally finished. We got dumped in the deep end with a reasonably unpleasant producer... which was our choice, but it was a real shock and we had to sink or swim there."

The record was a modest success upon its 2009 release, with single "Getting Wise" repeating their mid-70s placement in triple j's hottest 100 from the previous year with "Polka". The latter single was re-released, gaining ad-syncs and renewed radio play. YKB were in a creative purple patch following a national tour too – "We wrote something like 150 songs. We would go to the rehearsal room every single day," Tomlinson claims. The band demoed an entire second record, that was "less genre-hopping, and more streamlined," Sale says. But their label, Dew Process, wasn't buying it.

"We were writing more cohesive stuff but every time we wrote a better song, we were told to write five more songs like that," Tomlinson explains.

The release of the second album was blocked, wreaking havoc on relationships within the band until their ultimate split in late 2010 – not official until a Facebook post on January 31, 2011. Ironically, their last tour was an explicit farewell, albeit not their own – a support slot on Powderfinger's Sunsets Farewell Tour with Jet.

Rumours swirled around YKB's inner turmoil – the last gasp of Australian online music forums claimed singer-songwriter Megan Washington, Tomlinson's girlfriend at the time, had split up the band by moving to Melbourne. But the sexist Yoko Ono trope was a projection.

"I think people wanted to believe that Meg was the problem," Sale says.

"I remember people would always put those words in my mouth. I was like 'she lives in Melbourne, he lives in Melbourne'. [But] that separation happens, of course it's going to exacerbate the problem."

Tomlinson blames the split on the creative dysfunction, which in turn created personal issues between the four.

"You can imagine that essentially, if you feel like you're in this stalemate where you can't progress and you also are quite immature and you have a bunch of stuff to work out – basically you're going to fight and be awful to each other," he reflects.

"That was all of us – guilty of doing our own stupid things. I'll put more blame on myself, but maybe everyone could feel like that. It was just a shitty situation. We couldn't hold it together, and I wish we had. But it was a very emotionally difficult situation that we ended up in. That's all of it – interpersonal, our label, our manager, everything about our situation was pretty dysfunctional. That was why we decided to split up."

Sale is more self-effacing in his assessment of the break up.

"I think for most of my early 20s or teenage years, I wasn't very happy," he says.

"I think I would have been lashing out at Michael a lot. I think at the time, I didn't think Michael appreciated me. I would have been unhappy about that. It would have been a cycle of bullshit like that. With the benefit of hindsight, you see those things and see your life a bit differently."

Once the band had split, Sale says he only ever made $10,000 from their five-year career. He moved back home, feeling like the whirlwind experience had delayed his development. Sale started Babaganouj, the shoe-gazy band that also christened bassist Harriette Pillbeam's musical career – now better known as the world-touring Hatchie. 

Tomlinson stayed in a record deal with Dew Process for his new musical projects, which proved difficult and somewhat fruitless. Ultimately, the lessons of the band were more personal than musical – the four got their friendships back.

"We got a big big crash course in being a person – being a good person. We went from being really immature to – I don't want to say wise beyond our years – but it definitely accelerated [development] or made up for the lost time," Tomlinson said.

The pair say YKB drummer Chris Banham is keen to release the demos of the band's unreleased album, though Sale isn't sure what the point would be. Sale and Tomlinson recorded five songs together a few years ago, which the guitarist thinks were "Yves Klein Blue by any other name". In fact, they'd all love to reunite for another quick record. But with Tomlinson in London, Sale in Brisbane, Banham in Sydney and bassist Sean Cook in LA, and a pandemic to contend with, it just won't happen anytime soon.

Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.