Dougal Shaw of Dr Sure’s Unusual Practice: “It’s important to have some kind of light at the end of the tunnel because a lot of what we see in the world today is pretty bleak”

Handmade collage by B.

Melbourne band Dr Sure’s Unusual Practice play raw, angular, new wave-ish, post-punk delivering an intelligent, thoughtful perspective on hot topics in our society’s increasingly uncertain landscape. Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Dougal Shaw, chatted with Gimmie a few days ago about his musical beginnings, the challenges he’s gone through to do what he does, of the importance of having purpose in life and gives us an insight into his songwriting.

When did you first start playing music?

DOUGAL SHAW: It started when I was about eight years old, a bit of violin. Then I jumped on the trumpet for a couple of years, I was in the school band back in Central Queensland. I started out with the more classical instruments then it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I really got into playing the guitar. When I was twenty-three, when I first moved here [Melbourne], I started my first band.

Previously you’ve mentioned that Rowland S. Howard changed the trajectory of your guitar playing; how so?

DS: I reckon, yeah, for sure. Growing up in Central Queensland the only real source for alternative music outside of my parents’ record collection was Triple J, so you’re kind of reliant on the major broadcasters to give you alternative tunes [laughs]. In my early teens I got a lot more into punk and hardcore music, then worked my way back a bit from there. When I moved to Melbourne I was exposed to stuff like Roland S. Howard, The Birthday Party and that early ‘80s Melbourne vibe—that was a huge influence for me.

You lived on the Gold Coast for a little while?

DS: Yeah. When I was fifteen I moved from Rockhampton down to the Gold Coast. I did a solo mission. We’d talked for years as a family about getting out of Central Queensland [laughs]. I feel like it was something that was always on my radar, some kind of pipedream about getting out of Central Queensland and going to places that seemed like, from afar, they had so much going on—surfing and music, things I was really interested in. When I was fifteen I reached a point and I was like, I’m going with or without you! I bailed up there. My dad and my brother followed a year later.

I did my last two years of high school at the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast is where I fell into the hardcore scene, a real cool D.I.Y. community that were putting on shows in sheds, warehouses, community halls. It’s where all the misfits and outcasts, people that didn’t feel like they had a place, got together. Coming from Central Queensland, really not knowing anyone or not having a support network, which was a huge thing for me. All these people were just making really raw tunes and having a good time, jumping off balconies into crowds below, moshing—it was a real eye opener, a whole new world that have never before existed for me.

I spent a lot of time going to punk and hardcore shows on the Gold Coast too, we were probably at a lot of the same shows! I remember that shed venue, Shed 5.

DS: Yeah, true! That’s classic. Awesome!

There’s still a little scene, places like Vinnie’s Dive has really helped a little scene flourish.

DS: Yeah, we played there last time we were up. I think it’s the first time I’ve been to Southport in years since I used to go to the Southport Community Hall shows. It’s cool you were around the same scene.

How did you end up in Melbourne?

DS: I went to live overseas for a couple of years after high school, did a bit of travelling. I came back to the Gold Coast after living in the UK, I came back for my dad’s 60th! He ended up having a stroke the day after I got back. I ended up caring for him for a year and a half while he learnt to speak and stuff again. During that time, I was pretty much a full-time carer; I had a lot of time on my hands to play my guitar. In a way even though it was a really tough time it was also what lead me to where I am now. I had heaps of time to develop my art and music, all the things that I may not have had the time to commit to otherwise.

I’d been to Melbourne a couple of times during that period and my brother had moved there, a few friends too. A good friend and I were trying to get music stuff happening at the Gold Coast, we were trying to get a band together. That was where I really started hanging out with Jack Mccullagh, who plays guitar in Dr Sure’s now. He had moved to Coolangatta from the Sunshine Coast and we were going around doing open mic nights and random shit like that. It got to a point where we were like, fuck it, let’s move to Melbourne! That’s where everything is happening! That’s where the music scene is! The catalyst really was, chasing the dream! [laughs]; to move somewhere where I thought being a musician was actually a sustainable way of life.

How crazy is it now with all this COVID-19 stuff that so many people in music and arts sectors are effected and who knows if/when things will be sustainable again! Like, what do we do? You can’t play shows!

DS: Yeah, it’s wild! It’s a pretty scary time. Being a musician and making that lifestyle choice, it’s scary and uncertain at the best of times. When something like this happens it puts a lot of people in a really tough position. Everyone is pretty much living week to week, most of my friends and peers in the music scene are already working other jobs. People that make music generally have jobs that are around the music scene that’s sustaining them, whether it’s recording or doing live sound or printing merch for people, doing artwork and posters—all those things stop when these kinds of things go down. I feel like it’s also an unprecedented event, it’s hard to say what the long term effect is going to be in terms of people continuing to chase the dream, as I put it earlier.

You’re a visual artist as well as a musician, I wanted to ask you about the art on your album cover for your debut LP, The West; where did the inspiration for it come from? You studied art?

DS: I did study fine art but it was specialising in sound. My art degree was all sound stuff. I am a tattooist by trade. I do a lot of art work in my life. That design, it’s funny because I made the design for that album cover before I even had a band to play the music. I just drew it one day and thought it would make a good album cover [laughs]. It felt appropriate for the songs I was writing in that it’s got a little bit of a surrealist element to it, it’s also raw and got the little “yee boy” in the middle which is a reoccurring theme of my tattoo work, the little blob character dude, it’s almost like a little compass in a way; with The West it was so appropriate having that directional element.

When you were writing the songs that would become The West you were writing by yourself and you set a personal challenge of writing and recording a song a day…

DS: Yeah, in a way it was an extension of that fine arts degree. For my major project of the last year of my arts degree, I was developing a process which I called “reactionary composition”. It was basically a way of composing music or sound, it was reactionary and taking a lot of the thinking out and more or less just doing. I was trying to develop a new language around composition that makes it less exclusive. I can’t read music. A lot of the way music is written can be quite exclusive, with this reactionary composition it was designed around being more inclusive and interactive in that anyone can participate in this process no matter what your musical knowledge. I took that idea and applied it to the way I was making music. I started making these things with the idea of not thinking and not rewriting and picking things apart. I’d sit on the drums for two minutes and lay down a beat and then I’d pick up the bass and lay down a bass line that was a reaction to the drum part, and so on and so forth layering instruments. Having some restrictions in the way of saying, ok, there can only be two guitar parts, one vocal take or whatever. Having it as a fluid process and not going back over songs too much to perfect them, letting it be this raw thing.

So it’s like a stream of consciousness thing?

DS: Exactly! Letting the conscious mind flow.

Having a spontaneity as well?

DS: Yeah! It was the same with the lyrics, just a stream of conscious spew of whatever was at the top of my mind. A lot of the time it was taking “the feed” and turning it into some kind of spew of words, filtering the news of the day into song form.

A lot of your songs tend to have bleak themes but the way you deliver it has hope and humour in it; how important is it for you to have humour in your music?

DS: Totally! It’s something that I was subconsciously putting across. It wasn’t until I brought it to the band and I had to pick it apart more and you could see the threads running through it. I feel like it’s important to have some kind of light at the end of the tunnel because a lot of what we see in the world today is pretty bleak. Being able to find some glimmer of hope or being able to laugh about things, to not take yourself or the world too seriously is important… because if you don’t, you may as well find the nearest cliff, that’s how I feel a lot of the time! It’s a daily struggle to stay present and not dwell too much on the negativity you’re surrounded by. I’d pretty much lose my mind otherwise or end it!

I guess that’s why we make stuff though… we view the world and might not enjoy what we find and want to express our dissatisfaction, and through creating things we get to do this and make our own world. We have the ability to create our own happiness.

DS: Yeah, totally! Maybe that’s why I write a lot, because when I sit down to write a song it’s usually because I’m not happy [laughs]. I’m sitting down writing, alone in a room, and I’m processing everything. It makes me feel happy that you can get hope and humour out of my songs, you’re taking the positive elements out of it. I do sometimes feel like I dwell on the negative too much. It’s important to try and find some light in the dark.

Absolutely! After you wrapped up your tour for The West you took a trip to Bali and you started writing for your new album. I remember at the time you were stoked because you had such a productive time and you were happy with what you’d written then you came back home and your house was broken into while you slept. They stole your laptop with your new work on it as well as thousands of dollars worth of musical equipment. Obviously you would have been feeling bummed; tell us about that time.

DS: Yeah. It was a very strange time for sure. My dad and a couple of his buddies were going on a Bali trip and randomly the week of, I decided to jump on-board and go for a little mission. I was in this tropical paradise, way out of the west side of Bali away from all the chaos. It was an idyllic location, so far removed from where I’d usually be creating in a converted shed out the back of my house in Melbourne; which is often a bleak city to be in except from the couple of months a year where the sun comes out and the parks get packed out, people are more happy and bubbly [laughs]. It was funny to jump into that environment and try to write. I was writing all these happy songs about finding your centre and being balanced [laughs], all these things that since I’ve been writing songs I haven’t written. It’s been a little bit comical in a way that those songs got stolen and destroyed by the universe [laughs].

Were you able to write them again?

DS: Yeah. There was a couple of songs that I “bounced” out and sent to the band while I was overseas, that was cool. One of them was the song we just put out “Super Speedy Zippy Whipper”. That was the first song I wrote when I got over there. That song feels super appropriate to over there because when you get to Kuta you enter absolute chaos, there’s a million super speedy zippy whipper bikes cruising around. Going from there to the other side of the island where I was writing was the exact opposite of that. You can hear that in that song, a feeling, a juxtaposition of chaos and calm.

From the experience of losing your songs how did you bounce back so quickly creatively?

DS: I just got straight back into it, the fact that I lost those songs it made me want to get in there and see how much I could remember. Pretty quickly I just gave up on trying to remember the parts and just tried to make something else. I think I’m pretty much constantly writing, I get antsy if I don’t get my ideas down. My brain is constantly ticking over, I feel it’s my brain’s way of processing the world, if I don’t’ get it out it just builds up inside and turns into anxiety and it manifests itself in different uncomfortable ways. I always try to make time to get it out, to unleash the demons within! [laughs].

You have new 7 inch EP; what can you tell me about that?

DS: That one is four tracks that we recorded in December. We were initially working towards an album but everyone got super busy mid-year so we decided to put out these four now and another four in a month or two, then combine them. It’s called, Remember The Future? Volume 1. We’re working on Volume 2 at the moment.

Do you have a favourite song in that collection of songs?

DS: I feel like they work together super well as a four track thing. It’s really cohesive. It’s 11 minutes. It feels nice and snappy. They all quite different but there’s a common thread running through them.

What’s the common thread?

DS: With title, Remember The Future?, there are all these things which feel to me are talking about the future but, it’s all very present. It’s kind of a feeling that we’re living in this dystopian future, we all talk about it likes it’s in a future time. To me it feels like it’s already here, it’s upon us. It’s a common theme in a lot of things I’m writing at the moment, I have been for a while.

Like the book George Orwell book, 1984!

DS: Yeah, yeah, exactly! It’s not a new ground breaking idea. When I’m filtering the daily news it feels really dystopian—this is now! It’s a surreal feeling that I can’t quite grasp, I’m trying to explore it and articulate it in my songs. The absurdity of the present. [Laughs]

There’s a lot of unknowns right now, none of us know what will happen.

DS: Yeah, there’s an uneasiness in the air. It’s all a little bit comical though [laughs]. It’s a little bit ridiculous. We can either laugh or cry about it.

That’s right. Before my mother passed away, her thing was always that when things get tough or rough in life, you just gotta laugh! You gotta take a step back, realise you’re still alive and just do your best to keep moving forward.

DS: Yeah, that’s a great approach!

Why was it important for you guys to write the mini album, Scomo Goes To Hawaii?

DS: Again it was me processing this absolutely ridiculous scene that we found ourselves in, where the guy who’s meant to be leading up through this disaster unfolding, decides to go on a luxury holiday to Hawaii! It flowed out really quickly and easily, I wrote it over two days. I wrote it and released it within the time that he was in Hawaii! He cut the trip short because everyone was like, “what the fuck are you doing dude? You’re meant to be steering the ship”. It was all falling apart!

It was really pissing me off that the government had the power and position to support these fire fighters who were trying to stop our country from fucking burning and they weren’t. I thought, what can I do? I had these five songs and I thought I’d put ‘em up for a fundraiser and hopefully be able to help someone at least. It was born out of some feeling of hopelessness, that I was sitting here feeling useless. I thought it was something I could do to feel useful in this terrible situation.

I think it’s really important when there are hard times happening in the world that we ask, what can I do to help? Community is important. I believe we can all do something no matter how small to bring positive change. You can always find a way to help, your contribution does matter!

DS: Exactly, that’s so true. With the power of the internet… like people were saying, why don’t’ we do this more often? Record stuff, master it ourselves and put it up on bandcamp – that process is super easy and quick – and we can help different important causes. We made around $800 by selling that release on bandcamp. The technology we have at our finger tips makes it super easy for anyone to contribute in whatever was they can. What skills do you have? My skillset is that I can write a song and make some art and videos. Think about how you can take what your skillset is and use it to make a positive difference. As a human living in this anxiety riddle reality we find ourselves in, you need to find some way to make yourself feel useful. If I don’t find a way that makes me feel like I’m doing something useful, the walls start crumbling for me [laughs].

It’s important to have purpose!

DS: Yeah, that’s it.

What’s next for Dr Sure’s?

DS: We have a tour we were set to announce, right now it’s all hanging in the balance. We’re doing video clips at the moment, just trying to continue that theme from last year making surrealist video clips to go along with the tracks. I’ve just been writing heaps. I wrote a follow up of Scomo Goes To Hawaii called While Australia Burns. It’s sitting on my Google drive, I probably should have just put it out like the other one.

Do it! Do it!

DS: [Laughs] Yeah! Scomo Goes to Hawaii was written from his perspective just sitting in Hawaii. While Australia Burns was written from the perspective of me driving three and a half thousand kilometres from Central Queensland to Melbourne and seeing all the damage form the fires. I have way too many songs backed up that we just can’t keep up with. I made the call after putting out The West that I really wanted to do the next album with the band, we’ve been playing together for a while and I really love that energy that comes with playing with a full band, that power that doesn’t come across when you’re one person layering up the instruments. With that comes patience, I keep trying to work with everyone else’s schedule because everyone else had lots of other things going on in their life and different projects.

I have to find a balance right now of doing the band stuff and also releasing things that I’m doing. I don’t want it to get to a point where songs aren’t relevant anymore. Doing that Scomo one was important because it opened that up a little. I was stuck on the idea of doing an album with the band and that release has broken down that barrier in my own head, where I can just put things out and it doesn’t all have to have a tour and everything that goes with it. I’m letting go a little bit of all those processes.

Yeah. There’s no rules in punk rock!

DS: That’s it! Exactly. When I did the Scomo one it didn’t take months so I didn’t feel it owed me anything. Sometimes you get in a thing where you spend six months on a record or a year and you feel like you need to put a lot of energy behind releasing it, so that year wasn’t in vain. It’s easy to get caught up in all the bullshit! I just need to rely on myself to be present and create and not overthinking all this other crap that you can get sucked into.

I’ve released a lot of stuff now over the years and the more that you’re in the music industry the more you see the “proper” way of people doing things. There’s people paying for marketing campaigns and PR, all these things that were never really a part of my world. You kind of start to think, is that how I’m supposed to do it? Am I doing it wrong? Then you remind yourself, fuck all of that! I don’t want to conform to some process. I go to and fro with that, it’s a yin and yang tug of war between my punk non-conforming self and the ego-self going, I’m putting so much of myself into it and it would be nice if people heard it and the radio played it.

I think it’s natural for artist to want to share their work with people, a lot of people. Connection is also a part of the creative process and the human process. You go on tour, you play your songs, you connect with people; someone hears your song on the radio, they connect with it. It might spark something creative in their own life. We’re all in this together!

DS: Yeah! That’s the most important stuff. That’s why I’ll sit down and spend a month booking a tour, sending a million emails that suck the life out of me—because I love that! I love going to new places, seeing new bands, connecting with people and seeing what you do has some positive effect. All the hours spent in a dark room making stuff, the payoff is that connection, seeing it out in the real world.

Please check out: Dr Sure’s Unusual Practice. Dr Sure’s Facebook. Dr Sure’s Instagram. Marthouse Records.

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