The Collapse Board Interview: The Goon Sax
Ages ago I talked to Goon Sax about their excellent second album, We’re Not Talking. It was all ready to publish but being the week of the album’s release there was a glut of interview so I decided to hold off until their official launch shows a few weeks later. Then I was working interstate and missed that deadline. Nevermind, it was coming up towards the end of the year, it’s one of the year’s best albums, I’ll publish it among the End Of Year lists. Except I was overseas and it didn’t happen. That’s OK, they’re playing some shows supporting Parquet Courts at the end of January, that’ll be a good time for it, except once again I was interstate and busy.
The Goon Sax play a show next month at Bearded Lady in Brisbane with Wonderfuls, The Pits, Star Slushy and Ex Catholics. We’re Not Talking is still excellent, as is the band’s debut album, Up To Anything. Here’s the interview.
The day Collapse Board speaks to The Goon Sax is the Monday of BIGSOUND week in Brisbane. Although the band have previously played an evening showcase at the music conference, this year they’re only playing at an unofficial show at a tiny venue with a bunch of other bands and a second show in the carpark at 4ZZZ the day after the conference ends. Although we don’t discuss BIGSOUND, their previous showcase and whether it made a difference to them or whether they applied to play this year, you can’t help but think that their presence is missed at the official event. Increasingly it feels that there just aren’t enough good new and upcoming bands in Australia for BIGSOUND to showcase 140 or so acts but then again it’s always made a concerted effort to avoid the more interesting bands. In his review of The Goon Sax’s August show at the Bloodhound Bar on the always excellent Difficult Fun, writer Alex Gerrans hits the nail on the head when he talks of how the likes of The Goon Sax are “adjacent to, but divergent from” what he terms BIGSOUND Brisbane, the city’s more mainstream and commercial acts.
BIGSOUND nailed its flag firmly to the mast of triple j a long time ago, so it was astonishing to read comments from Nick O’Byrne, whose company manages artists including Courtney Barnett and Sarah Blasko bemoan the station’s power and influence. “There’s a generation of artists that were supported in the early 2000s who are now scratching their heads and don’t know what to do,” O’Byrne says. Alexander Gow, Augie March and Blasko, he says, are making the best music of their careers, but have limited access to audiences because of a lack of alternative infrastructure that matches Triple J’s influence. As a former programmer of BIGSOUND no one was in a better position to break the monopoly of influence that triple j has in Australian music.
In looking at the band’s profile on the JPlay website, which logs each song that triple j plays, it’s astounding the lack of support that the national youth radio station has given the band. “We love new music,” “We love Australian music” they constantly proclaim. It’s almost as if triple j resent bands that take a more DIY approach and don’t let triple j claim the glory for making them. I guess The Goon Sax, and others like them, will just have to make do with the acclaim and the rave reviews from the likes of Pitchfork, Spin, The Guardian, Q Magazine, Uncut, DIY, MOJO, Clash Music, Rolling Stone and more. Travelling to Japan and Europe at the end of 2018, We’re Not Talking was on prominent display in the record shops of Tokyo and London.
CB: Your new album, We’re Not Talking, is a lot richer and fuller sounding album than Up To Anything, your debut. Was there a game plan when you started writing?
Louis Forster: I don’t think there was a game plan. I think we were just working away at something and then it ended up sounding a certain way, but I don’t think we had like a final intent for it when we started writing songs. It just sort of ended up going in a certain direction bit by bit. I don’t think it was something we thought out at the beginning or anything.
CB: There’s a lot more orchestration and more instruments on it. Did those ideas and decisions come in the studio or when you were first writing the songs?
LF: I think we came up with some ideas just before going into the studio. We all had a lot of notes on what we thought we might want to do and actually, you know, there was a lot of things we wanted. We wanted to put cello on a song and saxaphone on a song. There’s a lot of ideas that we had which didn’t even really get to happen. But I guess we had those sort of ideas just before going in to the studio. It wasn’t like when we were writing the songs that we heard them with those bits, I think it was after we did demos. It wasn’t like something that was supposed to be a part of the song when we first wrote it.
CB: You’ve been introducing these new songs into your live set for for a while now so it was quite a surprise to hear them with all this orchestration and other instruments.
LF: Yeah, it’s pretty different and it was fun to get to do that. I was glad. We were originally just going to have synth strings on two of the songs, but then we ended up getting two real string players so was really cool because initially it was just the synth strings, but then it turned real eventually, which was really fun.
CB: You recorded We’re Not Talking with James and Cameron from Architecture In Helsinki. How did that collaboration come about?
Riley Jones: Because we had the same manager.
LF: Cameron was only there part of the time, it was mainly James. I think we wanted to work with James because he made the first Totally Mild record, which we thought sounded really good.
CB: Both those Totally Mild albums are great.
LF: Yeah, he did both of them and I think, especially that first one because the second one wasn’t out yet at that stage, that made us want to record with him because it sounded really interesting.
CB: There’s obviously a lot more Riley on this second album, what brought about that change?
RJ: I just felt more comfortable after doing this for a long time. Initially I was really afraid of singing and then I just got over it and that’s why I’m on a lot more songs now.
CB: I remember a show at [Brisbane venue] The Foundry when suddenly you left the drum kit and came up to the front and started singing, which was a surprise at the time. Is it something that you still find difficult to do?
RJ: No, not any more. But I used to be really terrified.
CB: Of just doing it or doing it in front of an audience?
RJ: Of just doing it. Even at band practice. I would sit in another room with a microphone, sitting on the toilet with the microphone and everybody else would be in the other room.
CB: You take the lead vocals for the first time on ‘Strange Light’, this is one of your songs?
RJ: Well Louis wrote it and it had really different lyrics but he wasn’t happy with it and didn’t want to play it. And then I was like “Okay, well I’ll have it.” I started changing some of the words and then over time kept changing more and more. And then Louis wrote a chorus for it.
LF: I think it was the most collaborative song we’d probably written up to that point. It was the most that we’ve all been involved in writing a single song together. Like Riley was saying, it was kind of accidental. It wasn’t intended to be that way but it came about that I wrote a bit, Riley wrote a lot and then I wrote another little bit.
CB: With three song-writers in the band is there any sort of sense of competition when it comes to coming up with songs. I always assumed that you wrote separately and then brought ideas to the band practice to flesh out and arrange.
LF: I don’t know if it’s like competition. Sometimes I’ve definitely had phases where I feel really motivated to write to prove something.
James Harrison: I think it’s more encouraging hearing Riley and James do really cool things. It just gives you ideas. When James writes a really good song it sets a benchmark, so I think it’s something that’s really just more encouraging than competitive. It’s always really exciting when one of us writes a good song, we’re never like “Damn! That’s better than this song that I wrote.”
CB: I asked that question because I was thinking about ‘Now You Pretend’ and ‘Somewhere In Between’, which are both short songs with only piano and voice and I starting wondering whether you set yourself challenges to each write a particular sort of song, as a way to drive creativity and as a starting point. How did those two songs come about?
LF: The recording of ‘Somewhere In Between’ that’s on the record was done as I was writing it. Probably just two minutes after I’d come up with it, I recorded. I actually recorded it on Photo Booth and that’s the version that ended up on the record. It was just an impromptu thing and we took the video off and just kept the audio from Photo Booth.
JH I can’t remember if ‘Now You Pretend’ was because you had done it. I think I’d just written that bit. It was also nice because I was pretty happy to write some really fresh lyrics at the time. Also we wanted these short songs and we had talked about interludes. I don’t know if it’s really an interlude but it was a short little passages that I thought would be cool.
LF: Originally we were going to call them ‘Interlude One’ and ‘Interlude Two’. I still see them as interludes.
JH: Me too.
CB: Also there’s a number of duets – ‘We Can’t Win’, ‘Til The End’ and ‘Losing Myself’ – and listening to those songs, those interludes, the orchestration, the experimentation in sound, the drum machines used in places, it reminded me of The Triffids’ The Black Swan album so I was wondering what you thought you were listening to when you were writing and recording the record.
LF: I remember with those songs we were listening to Young Marble Giants and the Rain Coats. Young Marble Giants don’t really have any duets though.
RJ: I think that’s definitely what the producers had in mind. They mentioned The Triffids a lot.
LF: I like The Triffids but I don’t think it was something that we were necessarily thinking about when we were writing. I really love duets like Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. I always though they were kind of cool but I think the stuff that we were listening to at that time probably wasn’t so duet-y, it just happened. It’s like singing together, singing at the same time. I get bored of just hearing one person on a song sometimes. It wasn’t meant so much as a duet to me, just a different person singing at a different time because it gets boring just hearing one voice.
JH: It felt pretty natural. Sometime if I write a song, I think Riley’s voice might suit it better. So it just seems like the right thing to do.
CB: The got the first press release email about the album coming out in May so it’s obviously been in the can for a while. Is it frustrating having to wait? Have you written much more since you’ve finished recording this album?
RJ: We’ve come up with a lot more songs, we’ve been just jamming and coming up with new material all the time. It takes a lot of restraint to just like sit on those songs.
LF: We’ve probably written like six or 7 new songs since then. The lag that comes with releasing music makes you just want to put it all on Bandcamp as you write it. It can be pretty frustrating. We recorded that album quite a while ago now, back in the first half of 2017, March, April.
RJ: And the songs are from way long before that, two or three years before that. It’s like we’re in this bit of a vacuum. That time is still so present now, it’s like living in the past, but not for anybody who’s hearing it now I guess.
JH: There are some songs from ages ago that feel a bit strange to sing. It’s like this isn’t really who I am, I’m kind of in a different stage now with relationships and things. But there are songs like ‘Losing Myself’ that I still feel pretty close to because it’s just about anxiety, social anxiety which I can still think a lot about .
CB: With six or seven songs written are you already planning to go back into the studio to record those.
LF: I think we want to write a couple more and then maybe record. But we haven’t really got any concrete plans yet, we want to take our time and make sure we’ve got the best stuff we can. I guess hopefully next year, early in the year or something, I’d love to record again.
CB: It seems like you didn’t suffer any second album syndrome in terms of coming up with new songs. And you’re still writing away.
RJ: We had a bit of a gap, the first in a long in time. We had six months off or something.
JH: We did have a while. Louis was in Berlin for a while and that was a pretty interesting time for me. And probably for Louis and for Riley. We all did different things but still thought a lot about the band.
LF: l think we wrote some songs in that time that are some of the new songs we’re playing now. We didn’t just doing anything together, I think we were just writing by ourselves and we weren’t really sure how it was going to come together at all. But then we started playing together and it’s nice, even when you spend a bit of time apart and it feels like you’re going the same way mentally, going through the same stuff, trying to say similar things.
CB: My last question is about the about the album cover and what it is.
RJ: It’s an artwork. It’s about two demons that are isolated in the cosmos and they’re trying to run away from each other but the more they run away, the more stuck together they get because there’s nothing to run on because of gravity.
We’re Not Talking can be ordered from the band’s Bandcamp page.