There are days when things just don’t go to plan, and for Brisbane young guns The Goon Sax an already long day of traversing the country between London and Leeds has been made even longer courtesy of sundry automotive misadventures.
It’s at times like this this that people’s true colours start to shine through, and with the ensuing delay meaning our planned interview is now taking place post-show and with a clock fast approaching midnight, they’d be forgiven for allowing a degree of tetchiness to set in. But instead the teen trio – Louis Forster, James Harrison and Riley Jones – will remain the picture of softly spoken, polite articulacy throughout our time together.
We speak during the latter stages of their first European tour, an event which crowns off a banner breakout year for the band following the release of debut Up To Anything. Having been snapped up by well-respected Australian indie label Chapter (home of Twerps and Dick Diver, to name but two) on the basis of some early demos, the ensuing album has granted them international acclaim, their own unique take on navigating teenage years becoming an erudite coming of age document.
“They’ve been far surpassed!” effervesces Jones, when asked how the past few months have tallied with any expectations they may have had “I mean, we have our pipe dreams but we never expect to actually meet them!” “I think they change with time,” offers Forster “when we were making the album I just wanted to get the songs recorded not necessarily even with the purpose of them being released, more just to document what we were doing at that point in time. I don’t think I was thinking about the impact the album would have but I feel that it’s probably surpassed any expectation I could have had. There was the ultimate alternative of being asked to play on Letterman, but that never happened…! He retired before the album came out.” On the topic of their first international tour and how they’ve been perceived overseas he adds that “I hadn’t really thought about how we were perceived overseas. I guess I couldn’t really tell at points whether we just had a really good publicist or whether people actually cared so it was nice when people did come and that the audiences were really mixed.”
Arguably something that has helped their rise to date has been a certain familial association – namely that Louis Forster is the son of acclaimed songwriter Robert Forster, who co-helmed The Go-Betweens and embarked on a well-received solo career. Louis could be forgiven for having a difficult relationship with his lineage and yet, as he describes, he approached it with a thoughtfulness and maturity that belies his years. “When we started I didn’t even think about it,” he begins “it was something I maybe only started to think about quite recently when it got mentioned in a lot of reviews. It was only then that I realised it was something that people would care about or notice. When we were writing our record it was neither a help nor a hindrance. Even now when I’m writing songs it’s a very removed headspace where, maybe luckily, things like that don’t register.”
He’s similarly quick to point out that it’s something that he’s shied away from actively using as leverage, claiming candidly that “I was very conscious when we were starting out and writing press releases and all those sorts of things that it was not something I wanted to use like a leg-up. Partly because it’s not how I want to be perceived but also because I don’t really think it’s fair. I would hate to get to feature in a magazine because of that when another band who’s better doesn’t because they don’t have something like that.”
But association only gets you so far before you have to stand on your own merits, and The Goon Sax have unequivocally shown that they do with aplomb. Watching them that evening only reinforces that notion as they become a tightly-formed gang where even James Harrison – someone who through a mix of tiredness, jetlag and timidity has to be invited to answer questions by Forster throughout our time together – becomes a pigeon-chested, stomping picture of confidence. “I think being on tour has really pushed it along,” says Jones “I’ve never felt as close as I have after playing every night for several nights in a row.” “But I still do think that it’s maybe evolving” agrees Forster, adding with more thann a hint of ambition and quiet determination “I definitely think it is evolving and I definitely want it to.”
That sense of togetherness is amplified by the simple arrangements, reminiscent of Jonathan Richman. Eschewing any form of trickery on unnecessary bells and whistles has put the focus on the trio both as musicians and lyricists to great effect. When asked about how big a part of their sound and ethos that simplicity is James Harrison laughs and shrugs “I guess we don’t overcomplicate things, and we’re just playing our instruments the best we can! We only have the three of us at the end of the day so I suppose that’s why the song structures and things are so simple.” The Richman cues sit proudly at the head of a playlist of influences the band made in the run-up to the record release, opening with The Modern Lovers’ ‘I’m Straight’. But the playlist also features everything from 80s British indie (The Field Mice, Heavenly), American college rock (Pavement, Galaxie 500) and unexpected curveballs (Sly & The Family Stone).
Asked about how their cultural awareness has helped shaped their sound and how much has been arrived at independently Forster’s brow furrows briefly before he suggests that “when we were writing [the album] I just thought it sounded like Twerps or Dick Diver a bit. Then when it came out no-one mentioned those bands and all the bands they did mention were bands we liked but that maybe had come through subconsciously but were more present than some of the bands we thought we’d been more consciously influenced by.”
But if their level of cultural awareness is impressive then arguably moreso is the way they’ve described their teenage tribulations. Given their ages it would be almost understandable if their lyrics were akin to LiveJournal entries set to music, all tennage angst, but instead there’s an underlying worldliness coupled with sharp wit and wry, knowing humour. Harrison’s lyrics touch on body image and self-perception not only with impressive maturity but in a way that resonates in a way that transcends the boundaries of age, with both he and Forster also deftly navigating the pitfalls of love with impressive skill. “I can only speak for myself on this but I really try to work the lyrics into a much more condensed version” offers the latter, when pressed “I want to try and fit as much as I can into as few words as I can. I’m glad you see a degree of worldliness in there too, that’s definitely not something we considered but it’s nice that you hear that.” There’s a healthy dose of humour too, with Forster’s ‘Home Haircuts’ opening with “I go to the barber to get shorn/And I leave looking nothing like Shane Warne” (to name but one example. But as Forster says, that humour was in essence a something of a cover to be able to say things without them becoming over-wrought, with him claiming that “when we were writing a lot of the songs it felt easier to say something very serious when you made it out to be almost funny. It made it easier to say things that were very meaningful and very important to us by almost laughing at ourselves. A song like ‘Home Haircuts’ was very, very real to me at the time and still is, but I wrote about it from a position of almost making fun of myself and it made it easier than saying ‘I had a really bad haircut and it made me feel bad about myself’.”
The trio have arguably picked something of a golden time to make their move as they join the likes of Alex Lahey and Julia Jacklin in the next wave of Australian imports, alongside established acts such as Dick Diver, Twerps, Courtney Barnett…the list goes on. They also join the likes of Lahey, Jacklin and Barnett in documenting the struggles and anxieties of a generation and in creating an artistic timeline of trying to make sense of the world from the perspective of an age bracket that spans from teenagers to the late twenties. “It’s wonderful” smiles Riley Jones, as she contemplates their place in the current musical landscape. “It’s a great time to be an Australian musician because of the internet and the ability for people to hear our music. To have somewhere like [Spanish town] Zaragoza have heard about us and know our music from the international press and what have you is fantastic.” Commenting on how things have changed for an Australian musician in recent years, Forster adds that “It’s great that the songs can go on YouTube and Spotify and can be heard even if you’ve not got a way to actually pick up the album in Zaragoza makes it easier than it used to be for Australian bands. In the past any Australian band that had any meaningful impact overseas moved there – The Triffids, The Bad Seeds – they all moved mainly to London. As band we’d still maybe like to move to Europe but it doesn’t seem as essential, which is nice.”
For Jones, the Australian national psyche has played a part in shaping the work of some of the country’s acts that have gone on to international success, as she suggests that “It’s a time when it’s important to be honest and just to be very real about real-life situations. You can’t write songs like The Monkees and The Beatles that are just aimed at girls. We’ve all moved beyond that and we care care about how people are really feeling. I think it’s a very Australian thing to not take yourself too seriously. All of the songs have to be very grounded and you can’t write deep meaningful songs about the meaning of life. They’re not as highly regarded by Australians – they need something they can connect to.” But for all of the success enjoyed by Australian acts, a dark cloud is potentially looming. Funding cuts are set to hit the country’s music industry (as we documented in an in-depth report earlier this year), including the premier/only music export service. For The Goon Sax, they’re already felt the effects. “It’s already affected us, definitely” says Jones “we’ve had to self-fund this tour…We’ve been looking at grants and so many of them have just been scrapped.” “We actually applied for a grant but we didn’t get it” adds Forster “which we didn’t find out until about two weeks before the tour…”
Nonetheless, they’ve got their head down and started work on the next chapter of their adventure. A new album is pretty much written, set to be finished when Forster finishes high school, before they start planning their aforementioned move to the continent. “I don’t want to play to a small but concentrated audience,” claims Forster with quiet determination “I’d like to play to as many people as possible. I think the reason I ever wrote songs was so that as many people as possible would hear them. I think there are a lot of bands in Australia that want to stay home and write songs in their bedroom and put it on Soundcloud and I definitely don’t feel that way.” “We see a lot bands around us who are happy to be hometown heroes,” adds Jones “and a lot of bands we know who are hometown heroes could do so much more.” “I can totally understand it appealing to other people,” closes Forster “but it’s just something that doesn’t appeal to us.”
Listen: The Goon Sax – Up to Anything.