Bec Maher of Melbourne Synth-pop duo Syzygy: “The songs are comments, reminders or pep talks to myself to help me understand who I am, accept or criticise the way I see the world”

Handmade collage by B.

Naarm/Melbourne synth-pop duo Syzygy – Bec Maher and Gus Kenny – are one of the brightest new electronic bands we’ve heard this year. Their debut release The Pendulum is full of spirit, charm and very danceable drum machine driven, hook laden bangers.

How did you first start making music?

BEC MAHER: I was actually kinda late to the game when it comes to making music. I have always been a little obsessed with music and have loved singing in particular. I remember as a kid I would take my mum’s dictaphone and record my favourite songs from movies and listen back, writing out all the lyrics and learning to mimic the singer. Then when I started getting into punk as a teenager I spent most of my weekends going to all the shows I could and have kinda kept that up since.

However playing music myself always seemed out of reach. I’m not sure if it was because there weren’t many women playing live music as I was growing up and therefore I struggled to see myself in it, to understand the path from punter to participant. Or if it was that I revered music so much, it felt overwhelming to imagine myself making it. But in my late 20’s a group of close friends (which included Gus, the other half of Syzygy), some of which were in the same position as me where they have never played before or wanted to try new instruments, were starting a band and I decided to play bass. So I learned a few Ramones songs, an Au Pairs and Nots cover and that was the start of my first band Spotting.

We love your previous band Spotting! Both you and Gus make up Syzygy; how did you first meet? How did Syzygy come about?

BM: Gus and I met through some mutual friends in 2006 going to shows around Melbourne and have stayed close friends ever since. We’ve done a lot together in the past 14 years; lived together, travelled together and one of the most significant was probably Spotting. Gus was pretty integral in helping me learn to play bass, as well as the basics of arrangement and how instruments fit together as he had a bit more experience than me and a lot of patience.

We really loved working on music together, perhaps because we both have the same somewhat obsessive love or approach to it. We have really similar tastes but also, sometimes quite different tastes too. So talking about music and the way we experience it, and how that can differ, has always been a part of our friendship.

I think Gus was looking to make something more on the synth pop side of things, so when Spotting ended he started writing.  By the time he approached me to see if I wanted to sing, he already had quite a few songs pretty much fully written. It took a little bit of thought on my behalf as although I loved singing, I actually had never really done it before. I had been doing punk vocals a bit here and there, but I knew this was going to push me and honestly I was pretty terrified. But I just loved the songs Gus had written so much and we had worked so well together in the past that I knew that we’d figure it out along the way. It was also a good way to hang out and spend time doing something fun and fulfilling.

What was it about the name Syzygy that you like so much to call yourselves that?

BM: So first things first, Syzygy is a strange name and we do realise now that it’s going to be difficult for people to try to say and spell. A simple definition we have been using to explain it is a syzygy is the conjunction of any two related things, either alike or opposite. It’s often used in astronomy to describe the alignment of bodies such as an eclipse but has uses in psychology, philosophy and mathematics.

When we realised the looming day was coming where you have to name your band, possibly one of the worst times in a new band’s progress haha. Everything sounds cheesy and weird until you say it enough. So we started trying to think of concepts that represented us or the music.

We kept coming back to this idea of our relationship as friends and as band mates as being mutually beneficial or a mutual exchange. We are very different people in some ways.  The way we see, experience and react to the world can be different and we both have quite contrasting strengths when it comes to making music and the wider elements of being in a band.

But these different and at times, opposing personalities are really complimentary. It helps us create balance when we make music as we have a huge amount of respect and trust in what the other one brings to the table. Balance was also something that was also coming through as a common theme in the lyrical content.

At the time Gus was reading a book called The Three-Body Problem and the word syzygy is used in that and it stuck with Gus as an interesting word that was fitting to the themes we’d discussed and reflected some of the genre conventions of electronic music.

In July you released a limited edition cassette The Pendulum; how did it get started? What was the first song you wrote for it?

BM: So Gus wrote the music to the title track ‘The Pendulum’ first out of those 4 songs. However he sent me a few at once to start putting vocals to and I chose (I’ll Just Be) Unfulfilled as I absolutely loved that opening melody and I thought I could take a shot at that repetitive hook at the end.

I’d never really done vocals for pop music before so I listened to melodic pop music I admired like The Go-Go’s, Eurythmics and Tom Petty and thought about which is the part in the song that pulls you in and makes you just want to rewind that 15 seconds over and over. That part that you feel like you are waiting for the whole song. That hook is sometimes the most satisfying part of the song when it comes to the vocals.

So if I prioritise that bit and make sure it’s something I’d want to hear if I was listening to it, the rest can follow. We ended up with 3-4 songs with half written vocals where I had gotten excited about a particular part and then moved on to the next haha. I think ‘Social Fence’ was the first one that was completely finished.

What were the things that were inspiring the writing of The Pendulum?

BM: I’m going to answer this just about the lyrical content as I can’t really speak for Gus’ inspiration when it comes to writing the music. When I write lyrics I have usually spent a few weeks prior researching concepts I find interesting that can work as a wider metaphor for what I am trying to convey.

For example, ‘Social Fence’ is a term used primarily in psychology to describe when an individual’s short sighted or avoidant behaviour leads to society as a whole, suffering. At the time of writing it I was feeling frustrated with lazy individualist choices (including my own, I’m definitely not perfect either) to do the easy thing, not the right thing and the effect I felt that was having on the community around me. It felt to me that the people setting the tone for the community were unaware of the power they hold and what they could do to transform it into a place we all wanted to be. So it’s perhaps a little comment on the music scene but also I think it can extend to interpersonal relationships too.

‘The Pendulum’ as a song is based on a joke that I had with an old friend of mine about the frustrations of having, let’s say, somewhat fluctuating mental health and that the goal is to try and have more of a balanced approach to life instead of being so 0 or 100. For me, structure and staying busy is the key to that so I think this song is a reminder to stay centred instead of being so up and down.

I guess in general the songs are comments, reminders or pep talks to myself to help me understand who I am, accept or criticise the way I see the world and process my relationships and experiences. I’ve tried to write songs without the first person perspective and I am just terrible at it. So I’ve just decided to commit to them being pretty personal with this thinly veiled metaphor over the top haha.

I often like to put a little reference or nod to something that Gus and I have spoken about, as well as its intended meaning. In 14 years you develop quite the repertoire of in-jokes so that’s nice a layer to it as well.

Can you tell us about recording this collection of songs?

BM: The songs start out being written on computer, but the software synths that Gus has access to are not very sophisticated, and they come out sounding a bit like “MIDI versions” of the songs they are supposed to be. So, once the songs are written, he records the MIDI through a couple of different analogue synths to make it sound a bit less clinical. This means that each instrument is effectively recorded twice, and that helps to fill out the sound a bit.

Then we send all the stems to our friend and I guess we’ll call him our producer Julian Cue. He has a studio so I went over there and recorded the vocals with him. I often refer to him as almost the third member of the band as he really helps it go from sounding like a DIY bedroom project to something much more polished with lots of dynamics and depth. He also is great to work with so he helps me get more comfortable when recording vocals and get a better outcome.

What might people be surprised to know about your music making process?

BM: I don’t know if it’s surprising but it’s definitely different for me coming from bands, but that we essentially write and make all the music separately. Gus comes to me with the songs pretty much written and recorded, often he even has an idea of how and where the vocals will sit, as they are almost like another synth line or layer. Then I take it and write my parts and record some demos at home. When we can work around COVID restrictions, we get together and combine everything and maybe play with the arrangement. It’s actually the perfect project for the pandemic because we can keep making music without each other. However we do text A LOT. Sometimes when we are working on something it can be 100s of messages a day haha.

We actually managed to make an entire film clip for the title track ‘The Pendulum’ last lockdown in April without ever seeing each other. I grew up watching Rage every weekend, recording my favourite clips onto VHS and I would watch them over and over. It felt like you got to engage with the band and the song on an extra, almost intimate level which I loved. So I’ve always wanted to make a film clip and Gus had made this video synth a few years earlier. He had been waiting to use it again for something cool.

So we created a little storyboard so we knew what to do and I would film myself lip syncing with an iPhone taped to a mirror or with the help of my housemate and then send them to Gus. He would run them all through an analogue video synth he made himself to get all the effects. Then he edited it all together with some stock footage. It was really awesome to see us being able to work together and adapt to the restrictions and still get to make fun and interesting projects.

The lathe cut release on Wintergarden Records is super cool! Where did the idea for the “moving picture” cover design come from?

BM: That was an idea that Gus has been wanting to try for a long time, and when the Wintergarden Records 7” came up, it was the perfect opportunity, because we could be so involved in its production. It is an example of a Moire pattern, which is a type of interference pattern that happens when two similar patterns with transparent gaps are overlaid on each other. The four frames of the animation are split up into vertical lines and the transparent gaps in the plastic expose each frame as they move across it, making it look like its moving.

Spider from Wintergarden loves things that are unique and collectable and as these are small run 7s, individually pressed, he was fully on board with the idea and let us go for it.

What either excites or frustrates you about the local music scene?

BM: If you had asked me this nine months ago I think I would have had a lot to say in regards to the way it approaches representation or access. Or talked about the bands and labels which are really interesting to me. However post-COVID, I actually have no idea what the music scene will be or how it is going to adapt. I think that I honestly just want to wait and see what emerges from this, particularly as I’m from Melbourne and we are still very much in strict lockdown, and re-evaluate from there.

What was the last gig you saw before lockdown?

BM: The last gig I saw was a punk show I was playing with my other band Vampire supporting Cream Soda from Sydney on the 7th of March. It was actually one of the most fun shows I’ve played with that band and although I didn’t know at the time it would be the last one for what could be a whole year, it was a really great send off.

What’s next for Syzygy?

BM: We are finishing up some songs and getting ready to record them when restrictions ease in Victoria and the plan is to combine them with the cassette to make an LP. The songs were always designed to be an album, but COVID made that plan pretty unviable so we had to go about it all a different way. We will hopefully have them recorded and mixed by the end of the year.

Please check out: SYZYGY on bandcamp. SYZYGY on Spotify.