A.C.T’s Noise Rockers Agency: “We started off as a dad’s band”

Handmade collage by B.

Agency’s new post-punk, post-hardcore, noise rock record is both vulnerable and staunch, there’s chaos yet a cohesive groove that drives the album along. Pretty guitars and melancholy melodies seep into the psyche, leaving it imprinted on your mind for days. We interviewed Sia and Tom from Agency to talk about their latest, Wild Possession. The album’s cover designer Adam J Bragg also gives us an insight into the art.

How’s your day been and what have you been up to?

SIA AHMAD (guitars-vocals-etc):Busy looking after my two young kids during the holidays at the moment while working from home, it’s been a juggling act I was never prepared for so learning on the job as they say.

LUKE ROBERT (bass-vocals): It’s school holidays here in the A.C.T, I’m fortunate to be able to work remotely, so I’m balancing work with building  couch forts – this morning the fort morphed into a submarine and we were attacked by a colossal squid.

We love Agency’s style of noise rock; what are some things that have helped shape your sound?

SA: Lucky for me, I got to see Hew and Luke play in their previous bands (A Drone Coda and Hoodlum Shouts respectively) a lot, even work with them when I was doing the hellosQuare label so I always respected them and loved their musicality.

I didn’t really ever play in a ‘rock’ band until Agency so the bond was really over ‘90s indie and math rock beforehand and then showed each other our other interests that lead us to fill the gaps in each other’s styles to end up where we have. I see us as a venn diagram of influence and aesthetics that make up our mess of sound.

LR: I’d say from the start we tried to not to smother the personality of each member’s playing. We had an inkling that our individual styles of playing would complement each other – it’s turned out to be the case. Songs develop fairly quickly as a result.

Agency have come back from a few years of inactivity; what was everyone doing in this period?

SA: We all seemed to be busy with our own personal stuff over the last few years – be it familial, work etc. In my case, I was juggling family time with the whole “quiver” journey for a long while. This also coincided with my last couple of years in the band Tangents, which was also full on with releases and touring.

LR:It was clear as soon as we heard her demos that Sia’s solo record was going to be special and a journey in personal growth. Both Hew and I wanted to respect that and give Sia room to explore her solo record and see where it took her. There was that and the Spinal Tap drummer situation.

The EP Wild Possession was recorded three years ago; why did it take so long to come out?

SA: Time kinda just flew by and with us maybe prioritising other things in our lives, we parked it on ice but always in the back of our minds until the time was right.

LR:It doesn’t feel like three years to be honest. The recordings sounded great to us and I don’t think we ever thought that we wouldn’t release them. Initially we thought we might record another session and then have a full length but time got away from us and it made sense to release the songs as a document of where the band was at, at that time.

What brought you all back together to release the record? Why is now the time to release it?

SA: We parted ways with our first drummer at the end of 2016 and then we worked with Hayden Fritzlaff from Moaning Lisa for 2017 – including recording Wild Possession – but then he moved on so we didn’t even have a drummer, let alone think about doing something else.

As Luke says, we didn’t stop thinking about the recordings so as we slowly got back moving on the shows front (with New Age Group’s Peter Krbavac on the drum stool), we started thinking that we should wrap it up with Jonathan Boulet and do something with them.

We’re all generally active with our politics and want for social justice so the real impetus to finalise a release ended up being that we could use these recordings as a fundraising exercise and talk about the causes we believe in.

LR:Like most, every band I’ve played in has been a collective, bigger than the sum of its parts type deal. An extension of that notion is using the platform no matter how big or small the scale to contribute to causes the collective believe in. I don’t take for granted being able to contribute in this way – a privilege awarded to musicians who, in our world anyway, aren’t looking to benefit or to pursue monetary rewards.

Do you have a different relationship to the songs now than when you wrote and recorded them years ago?

SA: I had to relearn so much when we played our first show in years in 2019, it’s pretty embarrassing to write a song and then forget about it so easily but I think it’s great that the songs still have the energy and power for us as when we were first played them out. It’s a shame that lyrically, so much of the things sung resonate a little too clearly with the current climate.

LR:Before recording we’d just finished a run of shows and were probably the tightest we ever have been. Listening to the songs now reminds me of a time when the band was clicking – that we could get the band to a level we were all stoked on feels like an accomplishment.

What’s the significance of the EP’s title Wild Possession?

LR: I liked the turn of phrase, the metaphor. Life is a number of wild possessions. It’s up to you to negotiate each possession however you see fit. There’s no right or wrong way but most people do so within a construct set of or sets of societal values. I like to find the humour, happy accidents, the absurdities in those constructs. By zeroing in on these things in each wild possession of life is a way of turning a potential cynical outlook on life into a positive one.

We love the EP cover by Canberra artist Adam J Bragg! I know Sia and Adam have collaborated on various projects for over a decade or more. Where was the EP cover photo taken? What emotion do you feel it conveys?

ADAM J BRAGG (artwork/design): The photo was taken sometime in 2012 on my parents old 35mm ricoh camera. My partner and I went out to visit a winery, Brindabella Hills, North West of Canberra. It’s directly west of Hall so the photo was taken around there.

It was taken out the car window. I have a bunch of photos of the landscape. I don’t think there was any thought put into it. I remember always loading up 400 iso film and taking photos on sunny days to get that blown out look.

When it came time to do the Wild Possession cover I really wanted to do something different, I haven’t painted in a while and nothing felt interesting. I was playing with some old paintings and it just wasn’t clicking.

A band called Regional Justice Center just put out a 7″ with a cover that was a homage to a No Comment cover and I thought it was a cool nod, especially for a smaller release.

I was listening to a ton of Lungfish at the time and knew that they are a big influence for Luke, so pitched him the idea of doing a homage to Walking Songs for Talking with an Aussie looking vibe. He texted back and said he actually kept having a dream that Agency was playing Friend to Friend in Endtime, a song from Walking Songs for Talking.

That was it, we couldn’t not do it after that point. Like, he independently had a dream about a song off an album, that I decided to rip… how does that even happen?

SA: Adam’s actually known Luke for longer than I’ve known both of them, Adam and I met when he cold called me to do some design work for hellosQuare and we hit it off to start the partnership. I 100% trust him when it comes to visual aesthetic and he nails it every time!

We placed that trust in Adam to listen and respond with the cover and while we certainly didn’t think of ‘rural punk’ when we thought of the music, I couldn’t stop thinking how much sense that phrase made to me when he showed us the cover.

I think people don’t want to acknowledge us here in Ngunnawal Country as both city or regional folk, we’re the outsiders in between and the hazy blur of the image suits that thinking too, musical outsiders.

The EP was recorded by Jonathan Boulet; tell us about working with him? What did you learn?

SA: We met Boulet when Party Dozen did an early show with Agency in 2015 or 2016 and we got along really well. I loved the music he had made and that he had both a good hi-fi aesthetic when it came to recording along with a compatible DIY ethic too. He understood what we were about, was a great listener and very giving during the process (I mean, REALLY GIVING since we were dragging our heels to finish things off!) so just working through recording without having to monitor anything and concentrate on playing was great. We did everything mostly live but he got us so tight during the recording session, more so than we’d even been I think.

What’s each of your favourite track on the record; what’s it about? What do you appreciate about it?

SA: Buffaloes could be the most ambitious thing we’ve done. Luke’s initial words, my response and then getting Hew to do the lead vocal threw ego straight into the bin and then the music came together in parts but really quickly too. We joke about Creative Adult just wanting to sound like Oasis but I think the second half of Buffaloes is us channelling our garage-y psych-pop secrets too. Personally, I had a sore throat for the recording session so I sung on the end section of Buffaloes and went super low comfortable (imagine in between Barry White and Ian Curtis). The others and Jono thought it was great but I’d say it probably took me the best part of the last three years to be comfortable without and use it to completely strip out those perceptions of the gendered voice within myself too – another journey among the others.

What was the thought behind getting Tom Lyngcoln from Harmony and The Nation Blue to deliver a monologue on track “Sensitive”?

SA:If I recall right, I had a grand idea of doing a pair of tracks that complement one another so Sensitive was supposed to be the twin of Senseless but in reality, I manipulated the music out of a Hew outtake from a longer jammed out version of Senseless and then sat on a longer version for a while. I wrote the monologue separately but it seemed to make sense over Sensitive. I wanted my voice out of the mix. Not sure why but it just seemed like he’d be able to convey the resignation well.

LR:Tom’s been a big supporter of us in our previous bands. We played a show w/ Pale Heads and on the drive back to Canberra we talked about having Tom on something. He’s a terrific guitar player so of course we asked him to do a vocal!

Sidenote: Hew and I saw TNB play Tuggeranong Skate Park in the rain in front of us and three others – I think it was for Protest Songs. The kind of magic moments that can only happen in the nation’s capital.

Have you been writing anything new? What kinds of themes are coming to the forefront lyrically?

SA: There were a whole heap of things from before the Wild Possession recording session that was so close to done but not quite finished so I think even revisiting those with current moods will be nice, when we get there. The one luxury of Agency for me is that Luke tends to roll things out that I can respond to in some kind of fashion too.

LR:I think I’m sitting on enough songs for another release. I was inspired by Sia and her solo record and the candid interviews surrounding the record’s release. I’ve written some more direct lyrics as a result.

Agency have toured Malaysia; can you tell us a bit about that? What were the best and worst parts?

SA: I always had a special connection with that part of the world and touring so it was nice to be able to do this with Agency and meet good people at each show. There’s a nostalgia for the energy and vibes at the shows, which don’t seem to be the same for us here a lot of the time.
A lot of memories from that whole trip:

We played Sonic Masala Fest and a Tyms Guitars in-store in Brissy the weekend before flying to Malaysia; Owen from Terra Pines drove us straight from Tyms (after a Bens Burgers lunch) to Gold Coast Airport.

Fitting in a one day recording session in Kuala Lumpur before our first show and eating like demons at the hawker stall around the corner.

Our tour van driver Adam and his bud Chap taking us all over the country including a late night round trip to Malacca and being stuck in an epic 2 hour traffic jam on the outskirts of KL! (Also probably the ultimate low of the whole trip).

Getting my Scottish free jazz sax friend Raymond McDonald to join us at the KL show for a noise blast improv during Stillness track On The Loop and seeing our Killeur Calculateur buds at the show.

Lovely hospitality from the Dunce crew in Singapore including the best dim sum you can imagine.

LR: So many incredible meals w/ kind accommodating people who went out of their way to show us and accept us in their community. Discovering Malay and SG bands. Watching Malaysia compete for a Commonwealth medal in badminton was a highlight. The restaurant was jammed packed and teeming w/ anticipation and excitement. Playing in a shopping mall and then walking through downtown SG to catch an outdoor set by OG Singapore hardcore legends was another.

What have you been listening to lately?

SA: I’ve bought a lot during iso – records by William Onyeabor, Party Dozen, HTRK, Stereolab reissues. Also really excited for the June of 44 album!

LR:Ancient Channels, The Meanies, The Dammed, Sonic Youth bootlegs, Screamfeeder.

Agency are from Weston Creek, ACT; what’s it like where you live?

SA: It’s the edge of suburbia before heading into National Park, quite lush in some respects but also just very suburban. It’s nice not to be so close to CBR inner-city hipster colonies though.

How did you first get into music?

SA: New Kids On The Block and Kylie on Video Hits baby! I found my own way much, much way later on into what you can unpick now.

LR:I found my Dad’s cassette draw with dubbed versions of Kiss Alive, Blue Oyster Cult, and ZZ Top. I was a silverchair/Nirvana kid.

Can you share with us some of your personal favourite albums, bands or songs of all-time?

SA: So hard…say without early Something For Kate, I would never have even thought about Fugazi and Slint so there’s a thought! Unwound, Alice Coltrane, Deftones, Low, The Slits…all faves for sure but so much harder to pinpoint something.

LR:All time CBR bands Henry’s Anger, Old Ace, Hard Luck, Falling Joys, Koolism, Looking Glass,  Voss, Babyshakers, Cough Cough.

What’s something that’s really important to Agency?

SA: We started off as a dad’s band and I think that oddly enough, that element of friends hanging out to just hang is probably more at the core of our existence as a band now than it was in the first place? Even if we’re not in the same room, we’re still texting or sliding Insta DMs with all kinds of nerdy discussion points that align with the heart of the band.

LR:Boring drummers with constant stories of ‘90s musical ephemera.

What’s next for you all? Anything you’re working on you’d like to tell us about?

SA: There’s some interesting things on the boil outside of Agency that are interesting but really, life is very slow for me at the moment. I’ve made a whole lot of new solo music between bushfire season and current iso-era so that’ll show up at some stage but also keen to see what Agency might turn out in the future too.

LR:We’re due a band and extended families catch up. It’d be nice to come out of the hibernation of bushfires/Covid/Canberra winter with a new batch of Agency songs.

Please check out: AGENCY; on bandcamp; on Instagram; on Facebook.

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