The Collapse Board Interview: Pete Oxley (Sunnyboys)
The other day I read a feature article about one of my all time favourite bands, The Jam – their individual style and musicianship, their rapid rise and premature break up, the precocious genius of frontman, Paul Weller, and the enduring love their fans still hold 40 years later. It made me contemplate the similar trajectory of the Sunnyboys, when I recently had the opportunity to talk to bass player and founder, Pete Oxley. Although not as widely revered as The Jam, Sunnyboys hold a special place in Australian rock folklore.
Originating from Brisbane but having moved south, brothers Jeremy and Peter Oxley, along with Richard Burgman and ‘Bil’ Bilson, made an indelible impression on the Sydney music scene when they started filling local venues in the late 70s as Sunnyboys. The Oxleys had been writing and playing songs together since their early teens. Jeremy was only 18 when they started playing gigs (same as Weller). He was a precociously talented and self-taught songwriter (like Weller) whose catchy melodies and moody lyrics caught the imaginations of many fans and record producers.
Just like The Jam, Sunnyboys were an energetic guitar-based rock phenomenon. Their style was loud and frenetic, but melodic and emotive, their songs unable to be pigeon-holed into either mainstream or alternative genres. They truly had their own style.
Unfortunately, their first incarnation was all too brief. Three albums in close succession – notably the self-titled Sunnyboys in 1981– plus non-stop touring and partying led to Jeremy’s exhaustion and burn out. Fans lamented that the band were forced to disband in 1984 when Jeremy was diagnosed with mental illness.
Over the years, the band reformed in various guises, playing intermittently but never able to recapture their heady early days… until 2012 when, thanks to the Hoodoo Gurus, Sunnyboys reclaimed the Australian limelight when they played a series of invitational concerts named after the Gurus song Dig It Up. Appearing on the bill as Kids in the Dust, they played to rapt audiences alongside the Gurus, Died Pretty and Radio Birdman. Kudos to the Hoodoo Gurus for sparking the ember of resurrection.
Sunnyboys have been playing to sold out audiences ever since, maintaining a popular place on the concert and festival circuit. I was able to speak to Pete Oxley before they embark on an Australian tour in January/February 2018, with support from The Celibate Rifles and in Melbourne, Painters and Dockers.
Collapse Board: I’ve got tickets to see you play at Melbourne Zoo in February, so it works in well with talking to you today.
Peter Oxley: Woohoo, that’ll be fun.
Absolutely, I really like the Zoo Twilights shows, they’re great.
Yeah, we haven’t done one of those, so that’ll be fun, and with our old mates, Painters and Dockers as well.
I remember seeing Painters and Dockers many years ago at the Seaview Ballroom in St Kilda and it was always completely and utterly crazy up there. Did you ever play at the Seaview Ballroom?
Yes we did. Did you ever get to see us at the Electric Ballroom in St Kilda? It might’ve been closed. We played there a couple of times but then it closed down. It was a great place.
Can you tell me a little bit about the upcoming tour?
Since 2012, that’s when we first started playing again, we’ve just been playing each year. If shows are offered to us, like the zoo show in Melbourne, we’ll say, “Oh that’s great, fantastic, let’s play.” When we get a show like that, we’ll do other cities as well, so we’re doing Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast. We’re actually playing in Canberra and Cairns this time too, so we’ll put together a little run of shows where we’ll play just on the weekend in different cities. We’ve been doing that for a couple of years now and we get really good audiences and people have a really lovely time. We have a great time playing and my brother, Jeremy, just loves it, so we’re going to keep doing that until we drop dead!
Don’t say that!
Or something like that! (Laughs)
So where are you based these days?
Well, we live all over the place. I live in Sydney, Jeremy lives in Brisbane, Richard, our guitar player, lives in Canada and Bil, our drummer, he lives at Mt Tambourine, just south of Brisbane. We’re able to get together and rehearse before we have to do shows.
It’s quite easy to communicate these days, you know… with the computers. (Laughs)
So we muck around with new songs and we send each other songs, and Bil puts his drums on songs, and we write a few little tunes like that.
I was going to ask, is there any new music that you’re going to be playing?
Possibly this time, but we’re going to record some songs in February of next year, so this is a little experiment, to go into the studio and see what happens. We’ll be rehearsing the new songs, so we might slip one in somewhere along the way, but I’m not quite sure yet.
I was wondering about the tour – is it an anniversary of anything, or is it just to get out there and play?
No there’s no special reason except we’ve felt like playing. Then it’s tickets – we’ve sold out three shows in Sydney already this tour!
It’s like… “Whoah!” It’s so beautifully surprising each time. You know, we think, “Oh no, I wonder if everybody’s had enough of us… yet.” And then we’ll announce our shows and then we’ll sell out three Sydney Factory Theatres in three weeks or something and you just go, “Whoah. Okay, well, people want to see us play,” so it makes us feel really nice.
And how are you all feeling about it at the moment?
PO Really good, yeah, can’t wait. To do the Melbourne show, that’ll be wild.
It’ll be really good. I saw the Specials with the Breadmakers this year at the Zoo Twilights and it was just such a fantastic night.
PO I just saw the Breadmakers actually. I’ve been playing with Ed Kuepper and they played with us at the Caravan Club outside Melbourne.
They were fantastic. I loved them. That’s the sort of music that you should play before you die. You don’t play country music as you get older, you play 60s garage rock.
How do you guys cope with all the touring these days? I know you mentioned before, you just play on the weekends, so you obviously don’t do night after night.
These days, unless you’re a particularly massive band I suppose, people only tend to want to go out on the weekends. So there’s not many venues that will run shows during the week. It’s the way things run these days I think, and also the most you can play in a row, really for us, would be three shows in a row. I was just touring with Ed Kuepper, we were doing the Aints, and we did four in a row and that nearly killed us! (Laughs) By the fourth one, you still play a great show, but you realise that you’re running on a different sort of energy when you get up on stage. You are very tired, especially ‘cause you’ve got to travel in between the shows. So by the fourth show, you’re just going, “Whoah.”
I can imagine. We’re not getting any younger.
I know, we need to conserve our energy, for the good things.
And how’s your brother, with all the touring these days?
He’s good, and ‘cause it’s weekends, we all go home in between shows, so we do a Friday and Saturday night and then there’s a little break, so it’s good. We don’t do it too much. As I said, essentially we just do it once a year and if a festival turns up and it might be nice to play, we’ll think about doing that. But because Richard lives in Canada, it’s quite a big organisational thing to get him. He needs to get leave from his job and it takes quite a bit to get everybody in the one place at the one time so we can do it, play some shows.
Can I just quickly ask you, back in the day, at the beginning, Jeremy wrote most of the songs. Is that correct?
So he was the main songwriter, both lyrics and music?
PO Yes. He’d come to rehearsals and he’d have parts of a song. He’d say, “This is the verse and here’s the chorus…” and we’d arrange it into the song and work out different parts.
Jeremy had songs and songs and songs and songs which was totally amazing. I mean, I wrote a few songs, but mine… Um… His songs were so great. It was interesting because when we first started learning how to play guitar, we immediately formed a band when we were at high school. I think we were about fifteen years old. Jeremy just immediately started writing songs. It was completely instinctive for him to do that. It amazed me, even at the time, I was going, “Wow.”
Because he didn’t actually read music, did he?
No, I mean, we just learnt how to play chords and we knew what the names of the chords were. When Jeremy started working out how to play lead guitar, he did it in quite an interesting way. We had a reel-to-reel player and you could change the speed that the tape would play. So we’d have Jimi Hendrix albums, or Eric Clapton, or old Blues records, and Jeremy would slow the speed down on the tape machine and he’d work out the lead guitar. Obviously it would be in a different key when it was slowed down and he’d work out how to play lead guitar that way.
Yeah, he was totally amazing. So you know, he worked out how to do it all just by listening.
Who were the other bands you were listening to, and inspirations, at that time?
We were listening to The Beatles and Rolling Stones, and a lot of that surfie stuff, Neil Young, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and stuff like that. That’s when we were in our mid-teenage years. But then when Elvis Costello turned up and the Clash, all that New Wave and Pop Punk stuff, that’s what we started listening to then, and were inspired by.
Sounds like stuff I was into back then too.
You couldn’t help it.
The Jam were my all time favourite band at that time.
Yeah, they were fantastic.
When you recorded the Sunnyboys album, did you see yourselves as being an alternative band or did you always want to make it in the mainstream?
The funny thing is we didn’t even think about what we were doing. That might be why our sound is quite unique in that way. We were just playing. Jeremy would bring a song, and we’d just play it. Like we’d just try and make the best song we possibly could, so our style wasn’t really related to being an independent band or a commercial band. I think it was quite a surprise when we had all these record companies running after us and we were going, “Goodness.” When we made our first EP on Phantom, we were just rehearsing and Lobby came into the rehearsal room and said, “You guys wannna make a record?” and we went, “Oh yeah, OK.” It was like we hadn’t thought about it before. We hadn’t thought, “This is what you do. You rehearse, then you write songs, then you go and make a record.” So through our naivety, I think, came about a sound that was distinctively “Sunnyboys”.
Yes. And it’s lived on and people still love it.
I know. Isn’t that a fantastic fluke?
It’s not a fluke! It was pure skill.
Skill? Ha ha, thank you.
I think we’re out of time, as much as I’d love to chat for another half an hour, I think I have to Let you go. That’s the name of a Sunnyboys’ song, isn’t it?
It is, Let you go, yeah.
CB Great song.
Jeremy and I wrote that one actually. One of our few combined efforts.
It’s a fantastic song, still love it today.
No worries, thank you Pete, it’s been really nice talking to you.
Thanks for being a fan!
I’ll catch you at the zoo next year.
SUMMER 2018 SUNNYBOYS
Thursday 25th January 2018
The Tivoli, Brisbane QLD
with special guests The Celibate Rifles
Tickets available via thetivoli.com.au<
Friday 26th January 2018
Twin Towns, Gold Coast QLD
with special guests The Celibate Rifles
Tickets available via twintowns.com.au
Saturday 27th January 2018
The Shed, Sunshine Coast QLD
with special guests The Celibate Rifles
Tickets via aussieworld.com.au
Friday 2nd February 2018
Melbourne Zoo, Melbourne VIC
with special guests Painters & Dockers
Tickets via zootwilights.org.au
SOLD OUT Friday 9th February 2018
SOLD OUT Saturday 10th February 2018
The Factory Theatre, Sydney NSW
with special guests The Celibate Rifles
Sunday 11th February 2018
The Factory Theatre, Sydney NSW (6.00pm – 9.30pm)
special guests The Celibate Rifles
Tickets via factorytheatre.com.au
Thursday 22nd February 2018
Canberra Theatre, Canberra ACT
Special guests Ups and Downs
Tickets via canberra theatre.com.au\
Friday 23rd February 2018
Anitas, Thirroul NSW
special guests Ups and Downs + Mick Medew & The Mesmerisers
Tickets via anitastheatrethirroul.com
Saturday 24th February 2018
Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns QLD
Tickets via Ticketlink.com.au