The Frowning Clouds: “We’re like brothers, we did everything together.”

Original photo by Jamie Wdziekonski. Handmade mixed-media collage by B. 

The Frowning Clouds’ Gospel Sounds & More from the Church of Scientology is a great record. They unabashedly wear their 60s influences on their sleeve. The songs are sunny, folksy, at times wild and nostalgic; it has a homespun quaintness, their charm and the group’s chemistry coming through loud and clear. In 14-tracks the band captures the beating heart of why we love music, why we make music, and why we try to express ourselves and find ourselves, and our need to connect with each other. It’s all here, raw, flawed and honest, exploring love in its various forms, longings and infatuations. 

The Clouds are an important Australian band that were under-appreciated while active, but over time ignited a garage-rock scene in Djilang/Geelong and beyond, influencing countless creatives. Clouds’ members went on to evolve their craft, innovate and continue to inspire in bands Bananagun, Orb, Traffik island, Ausmuteants, Alien Nosejob and more. Gimmie chatted with Frowning Clouds’ guitarist-vocalist Nick Van Bakel to get an insight into the band and release what you could view as the Clouds’ sophomore album that never came out… until now. Over a decade after it was recorded it still feels fresh and rousing.  

What’s your earliest memory of The Frowning Clouds?

NICK VAN BAKEL: My earliest memory is probably just me and Zak [Olsen] playing a couple of originals, some Velvets & 13th Floor Elevator songs in my bedroom and our friend Danny recording it on his video camera. We took the audio off it for our first recordings [laughs].

I know that the band was very much inspired by the 60s, specifically the period 1964-1967, as well as the Back From The Grave series and Nuggets compilation; when did you first get into that kind of music and what is it about that period that resonated so strongly?

NVB: Probably about 16 or so, we’d heard some more obvious stuff like The Kinks and The Stones etc., but the deep garage comps were like even more outlaw than that. The attitude and spirit of it all. We were real young and those comps are mostly all teen bands, so it was what we wanted to do. Also they’re just amazing songs played with high energy.

How did you learn to write 60s-sounding songs? Previously you’ve told me songwriting for you back then was very much about craft. What kinds of things catch your attention in songs? 

NVB: Well, that was our introduction to playing/writing, so we just did what they we’re all doing. Seeing documentary Dig! just showed that you could go DIY. The crafty bit is like all the girl group stuff of the 60s and pop. There’s a billion 60s songs that all have the main chords and motifs, and that’s where you can get creative and bend your idea into this little 3-minute song. Like the professional writing teams going into a room and making five songs a day.

The Clouds have a new release coming out on Anti Fade, Gospel Sounds & More from the Church of Scientology, which is predominately songs from the 2013 Frowning Clouds European tour tape called Gospel Sounds For The Church Of Scientology, with a handful of singles and unreleased tracks; what do you remember most about that tour?

NVB: A Spanish label called Saturno released our first stuff and organised the tour; the best part of that was going to Nacho and Dario from Saturno’s home town Seville. Seville is a medieval city. Star Wars has been filmed there. It’s where Flamenco was invented. We just loved the lifestyle of having siestas, meeting all their friends in the park in the afternoon, having a relaxed beer and tapas. They were adults to us, so it was cool to see that you could be an adult and have a job and family, but not have the weird Aussie thing of all the milestones like getting married, a house, having kids etc.

During the tour you record in Berlin with King Khan; tell us about the experience. 

NVB: It was fun because he’s also, another big kid [laughs]. He came to one of our shows. We were hanging out at a bar and he invited us to record the next day. We had this super legend, but super regimented, tour driver who was like “C’mon guys we gotta go!” Then Arish being like “Oh, you know what? We should actually do a whole album!” He’s real lightning in a bottle, just having new ideas every five minutes and changing directions. We recorded four songs or so just in the lounge room live with a toy kit and practice amps.

That’s so cool. I’ve seen videos online. There’s a western instrumental you guys did during those sessions that Khan released on an album Let Me Hang You that features spoken word by William S. Burroughs; what do you think of it?

NVB: It was fun to do and it’s funny to have a song credited to me and William s. Burroughs!

What’s it like for you to revisit these songs on the new release now?

NVB: Over lock down I had some good nights getting drunk like an old man listening to all the stuff we did when we were young. Only good memories. I feel proud overall, that we didn’t half ass it.

We’ve been listening to Gospel Sounds & More from the Church of Scientology heaps, we’re really excited the songs are seeing the light of day. What do you like most about the release?

NVB: Well, it’s mostly stuff at the time, we thought we’d leave out and I still feel the same way, but not so precious now after some time away from it.

I also love the art that Millar Wileman (who plays percussion in Bananagun) did for the cover. He’s got a pretty distinct style, he uses a lot of old world-y stuff and has a Monty Python Flying Circus kind of vibe.

Album art by Millar Wileman.

What was the earliest song you wrote in this collection?

NVB: That’s hard to say exactly, maybe ‘Open Your Eyes’? Or probably ‘Stick Fight’. That was about me challenging this guy that my ex left me for to a stick fight [laughs]. Tender days!

I know that a favourite song of yours from the album is ‘All Night Long’; what do you love about it?

NVB: There’s always something about a recording or performance that bugs me, little mistakes, but I think we really nailed it with that take. It’s the band in a nutshell really—raw teenager energy.

I think it’s probably the best performance we ever did. It was the best vibe. We recorded it with Owen [Penglis].

Do you remember writing it?

NVB: I remember Jake [Robertson] came over to work on some songs together and I had the riff for ‘All Night Long’ and we made headway from there. I don’t remember all the details but I remember sitting in my room and writing it. I remember riding around on my bike with it in my head and doing little monos and banging the front tyre down getting real pumped! 

That’s how I think creativity emerges, just when you’re relaxed, like in the shower or washing the dishes. I’ve been running a lot and I get a lot of ideas running.

A lot of the songs (like ‘If Youre Half Then Ill Make You A Whole’, ‘Thought About Her’ & ‘Not the Fool’…) are love songs, yearning for love, breaking up etc. How do the songs reflect you as a person?

NVB: I guess it says I’m a sucker for love [laughs]. Love songs are pretty universal and eternal.

Most things that most people do deep down are trying to find themselves some love. I like emotional content, I can’t get into things as much on an intellectual level, or clever use of language is impressive but what is the transfer? What’s the communication? Besides being wordy usually. Mostly though, I was just trying to make stuff like my heroes, Ray Davies or John Lennon. Lots of genuine expression.

Yourself and Zak were the primary songwriters in The Clouds; what are the differences and similarities you see in both your writing?

NVB: Hard to answer, we both started writing together and grew up together and influenced each other and wrote together. Zak’s definitely more of a poet than I am and more collaborative, but I’m physically stronger and a faster runner, and could easily take him down with a single fly kick!

What do you feel each member brought to the Clouds?

NVB: There’s been member changes, but for the most part I’ll say:

Jake, brings chords, scales and proficiency, punk vibes.

[Jamie] Harmer, allowed us to write in more open terrain because he had a broader pallet. (Both Jake and Harmer were like phase two, the best bit).

Daff [Gravolin] is like a studio player, he can do anything in any style, but you can still tell it’s him. There’s only one Daff!

Zak is the researcher, finding all the awesome records and writing awesome tunes. 

We’d really need all night to cover this properly cos we’re like brothers, we did everything together. Everyone brought their own little things to the party. They are all super funny too.

The Frowning Clouds really inspired a lot of other bands that came after you; what are you feelings about this?

NVB: Can only be a good thing! We really got so lucky with our friend circle. We got a bit territorial sometimes which is kinda funny and fine for teenagers to do. 

When we first started, Geelong had just punk and hardcore gigs that we used to go to. The first one that I went to, I remember getting punched in the head in the mosh pit [laughs]. I was just like, ‘Fuck these guys!’ Heaps of them had big brothers and they were just these big punk bully dudes. We all just got bitten by the 60s bug because it was the coolest thing that we had heard. It does seem like we got the ball rolling for people to follow suit. 

Is there anything that you didn’t appreciate back then that you do now?

NVB: I have to give huge props to Katie Jones who saw us play when we’re underage and volunteered to drive us around Australia for four years; five rude, stinky kids basically. She was beyond generous to us. Did so much for us and never asked for anything in return. The real Queen of The Barwon Club, always will be.

The Frowning Clouds seem like they were a really tight knit gang; tell us about a funny Clouds moment.

NVB: I remember opening for Little Red at the Toff and we got so drunk in the green room and started throwing crates of wine bottles out the 4th story window [laughs]. We’d honestly get canceled so fast nowadays. It felt like actual family though, thick n thin, and The Living Eyes were our little brothers.

Are you going to play any shows for the album?

NVB: We’re hoping to! Bananagun are moving overseas to Portugal for a bit to do a bunch of touring, but we haven’t bought tickets yet. I’m hoping we can squeeze The Frowning Clouds stuff in before that happens. I’m working on album number two for Bananagun. 

Awesome! What have you been listening to lately?

NVB: I’ve been listening to a lot of Beach Boys this morning, it’s been a while. I gave Pet Sounds a spin. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sun Ra and spiritual jazz stuff. I’ve been listening o a lot of Gamelan music and Indonesian folk. I’ve been listening to a lot of 60s garage again over the last few months because putting together this release has reawakened my fire for it! 

Gospel Sounds & More from the Church of Scientology is out August 5th, 2022 on Anti Fade Records. PRE-ORDER HERE.