Melbourne band The Stroppies’ music is the best parts of jangly British C86 and New Zealand’s Flying Nun in its heyday with their own transformative modernisation. There’s a lot of bright moments to be found on forthcoming LP Look Alive! (out May 1 on UK label Tough Love Records), shining moments of poetry and simplicity. We spoke to Stroppies’ guitarist-vocalist Gus Lord to shed light on the new album.
Your new album Look Alive! was written mostly on the road, which I understand is a different process for The Stroppies than what you’d normally do?
GUS LORD: Yeah, I’ve never done anything like that before. Last year was really full throttle. We were in plans to go back to Europe this year, making new music felt just like the right thing to do. It was an interesting process working out of a notebook in a car.
What was the first song you wrote for this LP?
GL: The first one we wrote for the album was “Burning Bright”. We wrote that one before we went on tour actually on a Saturday morning screw around with me and Rory [Heane; drums]. The original demo is quite strange.
We like strange! Strange is good.
GL: Yeah, strange is good! There’s meters of tape in our studio space that would have a lot of stranger things on them that may one day see the light of day.
I hope so. What kinds of things were inspiring the songs?
GL: From my perspective and process, I’m just putting down words and putting threads together; I have to keep follow that, until those threads inform me what the themes are. Once I get an idea of what the themes are going to be, I fishhook that onto a personal experience. With the last record [Whoosh!] I was writing from the perspective of other people, whereas this record is a little more personal. They’re not confessional songs but they’re going a little further under the skin than the last set of songs did.
Did you find it harder to write more personal songs?
GL: I think they’re still very much stories, my definition of what makes a personal song is probably far removed from your Ed Sheeran or whoever is popular right now. Not explicitly really, when you’re doing it right things are relatively unconscious. I think songwriting is just hard full stop, at least it is for me.
What’s the story behind title track “Look Alive!”?
GL: When you frame something in the context of a title for a body of work it subtly re-contextualises it. It seemed like a funny thing to call the record. It insinuates alertness and has those connotations to army lingo. For me, I just thought the two words looked nice together. I had the phrase written in my phone for a little while and when we decided to call the album that, I was looking for a name for the album’s title song; I managed to whittle that into the second verse.
I’ve been looking at all the track names and it’s almost like it’s telling a story as you’re progressing through the album.
GL: Yeah. If you’re thinking of the first two singles that we put out “Holes In Everything” is a sweet affectionate song, the sentiment at least. Whereas “Burning Bright” is more discerning and unsure of itself. Both songs are about relationships, different parts of those relationships.
Where do you write the song “Aisles Of The Supermarket”?
GL: That was one of the other songs that we wrote at home. It was partly written in our front room, we recorded four different demos of it and it wasn’t until the final moment when we went into another person’s studio and ran a bunch of tape loops behind it that the song found its feet. That was a Claudia [Serfaty; bass-vocals] one, she had the poem that we put to the music.
You recorded your album in December last year?
GL: Yeah, it was a pretty quick turnaround.
Your last album Whoosh! was recorded in a studio and your work before that was recorded at home, now you’re back to doing stuff at home again; how’s it feel to be back in the more familiar environment, your own space?
GL: Better! I feel a sense of ease and comfort. A precedent that I wanted to establish with the band was not being locked into any one style of recording or benchmark of production. We’ve always done stuff fifteen instruments on a tiny little cassette player and then big studio affairs. It felt like that this recording was a nice synthesis of the two. We got to track it at home with Alex Macfarlane who put out our first record and has been helping us out with stuff since the band first started. We took the master tapes to the studio where we recorded Whoosh! and mixed it down there. I definitely prefer having space and time and my own house to whittle out ideas. It’s a nice working process for sure.
On Whoosh! you used rain sticks and an old door frame for percussion; did you use anything interesting on Look Alive! to create sounds?
GL: I bought a sampling keyboard from Cash Converters which is pretty much all over the record. It was a crummy, beaten up thing that runs on floppy disks and we just ran a bunch of stuff into that and tracked it in. The good thing about a sampling keyboard is you save a lot of space. There’s nothing too obtuse that went on this record beyond your regular guitar music fanfare.
I love that you picked up something inexpensive at Cash Converters and used that on your new record. Using stuff like that you can get sounds no one else has!
GL: Of course! At a hundred bucks a new piece of gear can stimulate parts of your process or give a certain project and certain sound. When your outgoings are that low it’s worth taking the financial risk and seeing what happens, that was a good one for us.
I’ve read that when you were making Whoosh! you were having a little self-doubt; are you more confident writing this time around?
GL: No, not really [laughs]. It’s just par for the course. The greatest joy I feel in the process is when I’m doing it alone or when we’re actually in the process of working the songs out. Everything after that is a bit overwhelming! We end up getting through it none the less.
You made the song “Entropy” from your last album by yourself didn’t you?
GL: Yeah. I recorded a demo of it which I think is the definitive version of it. The version on the album is cool but… it’s the one song that I guess for lack of time, we hadn’t learnt it so I recorded it. It came out pretty cool, it has a different flavour from everything else.
Totally. That song was one of my standout favourites of last year. The way you sing it, the feeling in it… it’s one of those songs you hear and you’re like, how does something this cool even exist?
GL: That you so much, that’s very kind.
What’s one of your favourite things about your new record?
GL: It’s a little more playful and organic. I feel like every time we write and record we’re moving closer to what this band should be, we’re figuring stuff out. I think with a lot of other bands I’ve been in, generally around this time you start to feel malaise, whereas with this I feel invigorated with this to keep going. There’s still a lot of meat left on the bone as far as songwriting.
What is the vision for where The Stroppies want to be?
GL: It’s really changed in light of what’s happened globally. We had another tour planned, obviously this record was going to get toured but now that we’re bound to home it’s all been reconfigured. I’m really just thinking we should make another record ‘cause—why not?! More broadly speaking I try not to expect too much from it, if any opportunities present themselves grab ‘em by the horns and enjoy the experiencing.
While you’ve been in isolation you made a film clip for “Burning Bright” using candles and paper.
GL: Yes. It was born of economy really. In my head I had a broader more grandiose vision of what it would entail but the reality of the footage wasn’t as such. Me and Claudia are obviously a couple and we have a really good creative relationship. It was just us playing around one isolation weekend with a face mask, Plasticine and candles.
It turned out pretty fun!
GL: Thanks, I thought so. You’re so spoiled for choice and possibility with modern technology, it’s ridiculous! We’ve shot all of our videos on iPhones. This one was shot on a nice camera and edited in iMovie. To my eyes they’re totally fine, passable [laughs].
I’ve always loved what people do with what they have. It fosters and nourishes creativity and imagination.
GL: Yeah. Buying a 4-track recorder was a massive thing for me, it stimulated and unlocked parts of my creativity I hadn’t really facilitated purely because of economy. I tried doing digital recording but I guess it’s because you have access to hundreds of different effects, there’s just so many different options. You can spend months twiddling knobs fine tuning a bass guitar sound when in reality, all you’re doing is creating a smoke screen for parts of the songs you don’t want to develop because you don’t’ feel confident with it. When I got a 4-track it was, ok, drums, bass, guitar and then you have the last track and you’re like, better write some lyrics and put something on that. Economy can be very useful in that regard.
Who did the artwork for Look Alive!?
GL: A guy called Nick Dahlen. I had done the artwork for our previous two EPs the experience of doing that was one I didn’t want to repeat. When we entertained the idea of doing another record and having it ready for this period of time, because it had been such a palaver to get the other two done, we actually got him to do the art work before we finished writing any of the songs or recording. It was a funny way to do it but it ended up working really well. I like the fact that there’s the ants on the cover, you think about an army of ants and obviously the army lingo of Look Alive! In a weird serendipitous moment here are three ants and only three out of the four of us made this record. It worked.
Why was it only the three of you?
GL: We had a pretty aggressively busy year last year, at the end of the second tour that we did that had a myriad of trials and tribulations – it was a tough tour – we all sat down… me and Claudia live together and we know we’re just going write. We said, “This is what we want to do, these are the days; what do you reckon?” And it just ended up being us three. It’s not in any malice or ill will, Adam said he just needed to live a life and that’s totally cool.
What were some of things on the tour that were hard for the band?
GL: We’d been to Europe a month and a half prior and had a really good tour, coming back the second time we’d driven ourselves around. We thought the drives will be longer and we’ll be going through more medieval towns and things will be harder to navigate so we’ll get a tour driver. The guy we got was a real piece of work! It was a massive buzz kill. Slot into that administrative and organisational things that were overlooked, it really put a damper on everything. Bad hotel rooms. Cancelled shows. I had to leave my keyboard in Austria because the airline was going to charge me $800 US to bring it home. There was lots of bits and pieces that added up, it was really relentless. It bore us down a bit. I guess, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
What’s one of the best things you saw while on tour?
GL: It wasn’t so much about what we saw because you rarely get to see anything at all just by nature of the rhythm of that experience—it’s get in the car and drive to show, then you’re in a hotel room. It’s just more about what we felt and what we experienced, there were so really great shows! The fact that you can travel to the Northern Hemisphere and people can turn up, it completely befuddles me. Beyond the thought of annoyances and headaches of the experiences the shows were such a pleasure, which was really cool.
What feelings do you get when you play live?
GL: I get this sort of complete disassociation from myself where I become completely unconscious of what’s going on—that’s when it’s good! When it’s bad it’s the polar opposite, a heightened self-consciousness, an ultra-awareness and my brain will meander off into absurd places; what I ate for breakfast? What am I going to wear tomorrow? That’s the worst end of it.
I always love asking anyone I interview this next question; why is music important to you?
GL: It’s something that I’ve been able to invest myself in and in turn define myself by. It’s afforded me friendships, community, camaraderie and solace. It plays a very important role in my life.
Have you always played music?
GL: No, I didn’t really grow up around much music. My friend Alex who I’ve played in a bunch of bands with and who has been very supportive of everything that I’ve done, his dad and my dad were friends since they were fifteen growing up in Sydney. Alex and I were born two months apart so we’ve been pals since we wore born. When I was around thirteen or fourteen, I’d see him and his dad play music all the time and I started because I got sick of sitting on the couch watching them!