Bananagun’s Nick Van Bakel: “Nature is a good teacher. Just being around plants… you can get little life philosophies”

Original photo by Jamie Wdziekonski. Handmade collage by B.

Melbourne band Bananagun’s sound straddles the sounds of the 60s and 70s with a psychedelic garage feel and an obvious love of exotica, afrobeat and world music, yet with a freshness. They’re getting set to release their colourful, vibrant and punchy debut LP The True Story Of Bananagun in June.  Gimmie chatted to multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Nick Van Bakel.

NICK VAN BAKEL: I live in Daylesford which is near Ballarat and Castlemaine, it’s in a valley.

Is it a nice place to live? Is it in the country?

NVB: Yeah, it’s real country. It’s beautiful. I’m on the edge of the Wombat State Forest.

Nice! Do you go bushwalking much?

NVB: Yeah, I try and go for a little walk every day.

I’m guessing you love nature?

NVB: I do! It’s bliss out here.

I‘ve noticed with your debut album The True Story of Bananagun there’s a nature and jungle-ish kind of theme, even in the visuals of the cover; have you always had a fascination with that kind of stuff?

NVB: Definitely, I’ve always liked that sort of stuff. In a musical way, I’ve always liked everything jungle-y and exotic-y, nature-y [laughs]. As a kid I always loved being in the bush. I really like the peacefulness of not talking and just walking around in the bush, it’s real nice.

I love bushwalking. The natural world can have such a beautiful energy, from the plants and trees, there is something very peaceful about being out in the bush.

NVB: There is for sure. More recently I found out all that stuff about how trees talk to each other and of them having support networks; if there’s one tree struggling, another tree in the area will put some of its energy down, underground into the network to help out the one that is lagging. They’re a good team! [laughs].

Yes, it’s pretty fascinating. I’ve read you’re a meditator?

NVB: Yeah, I try to as much as possible. I’ve forgotten to today though [laughs].

How did you first get into that?

NVB: I’ve always been interested in it from when I first heard about it in my early 20s, George Harrison and the whole India thing. I thought it seemed really inaccessible though like; what the hell do you do? How do you do it? For ages I was trying to do it, I’d just sit there and be like; am I doing it right? Over time I’ve done research and tried different techniques and found stuff that works for me and feels right for me to do. In the last two years I’ve made way more of an effort. After doing it for a while, there was a good stint over a few months where I did it constantly, I couldn’t believe how different everything was!

Absolutely! I’ve been meditating for the last 20 years and I always say, nothing bad has ever come from meditating. It’s helped me in ways I don’t even realise at the time but, then how I deal with a situation that might come up in my day with calm and clarity and ease, as opposed to me getting fiery or angry or in a bad mood about something like I used to, has really proven to me the benefits of meditation… and that’s only one example. Sometimes my mind totally resists meditation though, usually when I need it most, it’s funny how the brain works sometimes.

NVB: Yeah, sometimes I’ve found it can just be laziness. Sometimes it can be just an effort to sit there, there’s a fear. I think people sometimes don’t like to do things they fail at or think they might fail at; there’s so much room for failure in meditation because you wonder if you’re doing it right. People I’ve suggested it to, sometimes seem to be turned off by it because you can’t just do it straight away and get somewhere with.

I think it’s maybe because people find it hard to sit with themselves, all your thoughts, experiences, problems etc. The mind can be so busy. It’s not always pleasant and blissful to sit, that’s when I think you can make the best breakthroughs though.

NVB: For sure! It’s so important to connect with yourself and face those things, it’s how you progress. You need to find that middle ground between the extremes of high and low.

The middle path. Meditation has always made a positive impact in my life.

NVB: I’m usually a pretty mellow person, sometimes I can get so excited, way too over excited, with music or anything – like when kids get a bit silly [laughs] – it’s good to get a stability to not lose your head, that’s what meditation gives me. Whether you’re excited or feel a bit sad it’s important to realise it’s a passing thing, meditation helps that. One of the coolest things I noticed I got out of it after doing it for some time, you’re more open to signs. When I meditate heaps I feel like I get more messages, more signs, if I have a decision to make, I’ll see something that will talk to me and I’ll find answers in that. You’re more tuned it.

You have more awareness, you’re more mindful of things.

NVB: Yes!

Synchronicity.

NVB: Yes! For sure.

Things flow better because you’re in the flow of life.

NVB: Daily hiccups just roll off your back. If something shit happens, like you get a fine you have to pay or something, you have perspective and you know you’re not going to die or anything from it so it doesn’t really matter as much in the scheme of things. You endure stuff better. I’m all about that sort stuff. If I wasn’t going to do music full-time I thought it’d be a peaceful existence and beneficial to other people being a meditation or yoga teacher.

Totally! Where did your love of the 60s come from?

NVB: I’ve pretty much never had any beef with it [laughs]. Anytime I heard something, even from when I was a kid, even if I didn’t realise it at the time – my mum was really into Donovan and Simon & Garfunkel, stuff like that, The Byrds. I remember liking ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ as a kid, when I heard it when I was fourteen again, it felt so good and familiar. It’s just what I go for.

It was a pretty interesting time in the world too, with all the changes and politics and revolutionary things, so really cool art was made. I do think though every period has cool art that can be a reflection of the times.

NVB: Yeah, for sure.

I’ve heard you have a bit of an obsession with Indian music?

NVB: Yeah. I have an obsession with world music and music in general. I remember getting into The [Rolling] Stones, I remember when that Brian Jonestown documentary came out and seeing all the sitars. There’s an enticing esoteric and mystical quality to it, it kind of feels like the mystery of the Universe. It’s a magnetic thing that I just like. I like classical Indian music too, it’s peaceful and meditative. Sitar music is really nice, I got a sitar for my eighteenth birthday, I play that heaps. I did sitar and tabla lessons in India, which was rad.

Why did you chose to go to India?

NVB: I was with my friend Stella and my ex-girlfriend. We went over for two months. I love everything about India. I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t Western. I’ve been to Europe a couple of times. I love the food, music, culture and mysticism.

Was there anything that was a culture shock to you?

NVB: Yeah! I keep on thinking that every single sense of your body gets pushed to the absolute extreme. India is everything all at once. You can walk down the street and find a spice market with all these nice aromas and then you turn a corner and there’s an open sewer with human shit everywhere, so salty and stinky and septic, burning your nostrils. You can walk past a window and hear Hindi singing. Then there’s all the chaos of the relentless traffic and Tuk Tuk horns. People pester you so relentlessly, it was such an endurance test. I did bus rides for 48 hours where you couldn’t sleep on the bus because you were in a little upright chair, I’d have all my bags with me and everyone would stare at you because you’re Westerners.

What inspired you to start Bananagun? When you started you were doing it all by yourself?

NVB: Yeah, kind of. I had another band Frowning Clouds and we stopped playing. I had a couple of years without any bands and I was keen to start another band ASAP. Everyone was so busy because they were all in other bands and I found it hard to find members. I always wanted to start a new band. I always thought Jimmy could play drums, he’s my younger cousin. We always talked about doing a band someday.

You don’t want to do the same band twice, I’d done the Frowning Clouds thing, so I couldn’t have another 60s band. I was still really into that music at the time though. I started to be able to see a way to do it that’s different from other stuff I’ve made. I was just looking for a new angle.

Bananagun is like an amalgamation of all of the things you like: the ‘60s, world music, exotica and things like spirituality and mysticism.

NVB: It just feels super natural and organic, not contrived or anything. It all started to inform itself the further it went on, Jimmy came along and then other people came along, time went on and it materialized. It’s such a pain in the arse to have proper songs sometimes, like verse, chorus, verse—I’d probably just prefer music itself, that’s the easy fun part, then lyrics are the drag you have to do to finish it [laughs]. I’ve always dug world music. I thought this band was a clean slate and I could make it what I wanted it to be, a blank canvas. There’s a really great overlap in taste with everyone in the band. It was really essential to have a band where we could all hang out together and not get sick of each other, to have good chemistry. Once we found everyone it was all systems go!

On the new record there’s a 90-second track called ‘Bird Up’; it’s made up of sounds from birds like kookaburras and parrot from around where you love?

NVB: Yeah. The birds inspired me. The album was just track, track, track, track, I thought it needed something to make it more of a left turn so it doesn’t just sound like a Spotify playlist of songs. I wanted to make it kind of like opening credits, it’s a little interlude. There’s so many birds out here and crickets! I want to sample crickets and make a cool nature thing, I could do a Bossa pattern with them and there’s these cool Banjo frogs that make little plunky noises. I just need to get a good hand recorder.

There’s really loud crickets in our area too. When I wake up in morning and it’s still dark, the moment I hear birds calling I know the suns coming up and it’s time to get up.

NVB: It’s beautiful. It’s the soundtrack for the day, you should be up when the birds are chirping [laughs].

I like being in touch with that natural cycle, sometimes when you’re in the city it can feel so removed from nature—just buildings and cars and people and more people.

NVB: Yeah, totally! Sometimes I don’t know if it’s best to abide by the laws of nature or if you should progress and move with the times. I can just imagine myself being an 80-year-old naturalist and trying to pay bills but not being registered with the corps. [laughs]. I feel I’ll be real obsolete and outdated!

Nature never fails to amaze me. Whenever I’m having a hard day or something is getting me down, I just go outside and look at my garden or the trees in the park across the road from me or pat our dog and I’m reminded that the world isn’t such a bad place. Those things snap me out of what I’m feeling and brings me back to what really matters.

NVB: For sure. I think nature is a good teacher. I do gardening for a job, just being around plants heaps you can get little life philosophies from that kind of stuff. You can be like; why is there someone that’s so twisted and evil like Hitler? Then you’ll see a gnarled up rose and you’ll remember that sometimes things come out wonky.

My mum has been sick the last couple of years, they said she had six month to live but it’s been three or four years now; she gets a lot solace from nature. She’ll send me photos and will be like: look my daffodils are blossoming again! She says things to me like: it’s ok sweetheart, it’s just the cycles of life, and things bloom and then die and return.

It’s so great your mother is still here.

NVB: Yeah, she’s totally bad arse!

I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Taking the Present for Granted’; what’s it about?

NVB: I had a good friend at the time that was having a bit of an existential crisis and they were like “nobody knows why we’re here, we’re not here for any reason. What’s the point? We’re all gonna die!” They were afraid of that idea. You could be like, nothing matters, I can do what I want. I don’t have to get a stupid job that I hate, because nothing matters. That’s what that song is sort of about—is it really that bad?

It’s funny trying to talk about songs because it’s usually this vague concept and you’re not really sure. You end up working on it so much so it’s the most precise and articulate way you could say that and when you have to talk to someone about it and expand on it that you just feel like a clumsy fool trying to.

And people find their own meanings in songs.

NDS: Yes, that song could be about kids getting presents for Christmas that they don’t like and taking them for granted [laughs].

With the ‘Bird Up’ track we were talking about before; did you get the title from that from the Eric Andre Bird Up! skit?

NVB: [Laughs] Yes! I made it, bounced it out into iTunes and it asked me; what is the song called? I just said, ‘Bird Up’! I was supposed to change it to something better but I was busy and didn’t get to and got the Masters back and it was still called that so I thought, whatever!

It’s easy for people to think that you’re a serious person and you have to try and show all of your sides with music, try to be a full picture. People don’t just want to hear the serious stuff you’ve got to say. You can express a lot of serious stuff through comedy, it takes the edge off. Comedians talk about serious shit but make it funny and digestible.

It can open up conversation about subjects people may usually feel uncomfortable with. I was listening to your song ‘The Master’ and I got the vibe from it that it’s about not comparing yourself to others and to be your own master; is comparing yourself to others something you’ve done yourself?

NVB: Yeah for sure. Just all my peers and people around you. I remember too, listening to The Beatles and thinking, fuck, what’s the point?! That’s the bench mark. I have to get my shit together [laughs]. It’s toxic to get into that comparing kind of thinking.

What helps you with that stuff?

NVB: Just realising it’s stupid and stopping it. It was worse when I was younger. As you get older and come into yourself, you realise it’s stupid and that everyone else is probably thinking the same thing!

I love the album cover for The True Story of Bananagun!

NVB: Thank you! I’m happy with that, the colours are amazing! Everything that Jamie [Wdziekonski] shoots is amazing.

There is always so much depth and feeling and life in Jamie’s photos, he really captures beautiful moments. He’s one of my favourite modern day photographers.

NVB: Cool. The idea was that we needed to make album art and it’s really time consuming so we thought, let’s just get Jamie to take a real sweet photo and let that do most of the talking… then we just need to put a border around it or something [laughs].

One of the overarching themes that I’ve found on your album is beauty and finding it; where do you find beauty?

NVB: Yep, cool. Probably mostly in nature and people. This is going to be such a wanky conversation from here on but… I like thinking about beauty not as a conventionally beautiful person or something like that but like Lou Reed talking about seeing something like a real hideous guitar and being like, “oh, that’s beautiful!” Beauty is good because it has a different meaning for everybody. Then there’s stuff that just knocks you on your arse because it’s so undeniably beautiful. Maybe that’s Indian music for me or when you hear stuff that’s so pure and beautiful it’s ridiculous! It almost has an authority kind of presence, it sits you down and it’s a mystical experience. I see a lot of beauty in people’s expressions too or when people just unintentionally just do beautiful stuff in a selfless way.

Please check out: BANANAGUN. Bananagun on Facebook. Bananagun on Instagram. The True Story Of Bananagun out on ANTI-FADE and Full Time Hobby (UK).

Cable Ties’ Jenny McKechnie: “I’m more confident to live my life according to the values of this band… existing in the world where you fight for the things that you believe in”

Original photo Spike Vincent. Handmade collage by B.

Melbourne band Cable Ties have released a new record, Far Enough. The album is a musical burst of joy while it’s lyrically introspective and vulnerable, reflecting on one’s place in the world. If their explosive debut album were a call to arms full of protest songs, follow up Far Enough is knowing who you are, being OK with that and linking arms on the frontlines of life, standing strong for your beliefs arm-in-arm with your community. We spoke to vocalist-guitarist Jenny McKechnie yesterday as she tried to stop her seven-month-old pup Barry from demolishing all the plant seedlings the household had recently planted in the backyard.

I know that community is very important to Cable Ties, especially the DIY Melbourne music community; when you first came to the music scene, did you know anyone? How did you start to get involved?

JENNY MCKECHNIE: I grew up in Bendigo and I moved to Melbourne for uni when I was nineteen. In uni I met a friend, Grace [Kindellan]. She was really into garage music and we both got into the local scene together and started a band a year later called, Wet Lips. So, just moving to Melbourne about nine years ago and going to The Tote, The Old Bar, got me into it!

How did you start playing guitar?

JM: I started playing guitar when I was twelve, my dad had a nylon string acoustic guitar that I picked up and learnt songs on. When I was a teenager I was in a bunch of bands that were playing Celtic folk music [laughs]. I used to like going to all the folk festivals and writing sweet folk songs on acoustic guitar. When I came to Melbourne I got more into the punk and garage scene; I first picked up the bass to start with and then with Cable Ties moved on to the electric guitar.

With your new record Far Enough, I understand that it came from a place where you were feeling really hopeless.

JM: Yeah, it did. The first record that we wrote is pretty much defiant protest songs. Making the sound we did was really liberating after playing softer folk music, which was all of my songwriting before. By the time we came around to writing this album I was feeling pretty hopeless and despondent about the world and unconvinced that I was able to have a positive impact on anything. I  was coming from a place where I was suffering from anxiety and depression at that time, going through a bit of a spot in my mid-20s where I couldn’t quite work things out and what to do next. In the songwriting process I started in that spot but always wanted to find a way out of it, to find something to cling onto to be hopeful about and keep fighting for.

So writing things songs did help you do that?

JM: Definitely. Songs like “Hope” especially came out of the process of a lot of journaling and a lot of time spent thinking and processing these things. I had a good psychologist too! Some of the songs on the album were really helpful and part of a bigger process that I went through generally about feeling better about myself and the world.

When you posted about the album online you mentioned that it was really challenging to make; in what way?

JM: It was challenging because it was part of that process we just talked about, the album was pretty honest and talks about the things that I was struggling with. A lot of that is turning things in on myself, I was experiencing a lot of self-criticism and a lot of self-hate about stuff like, “oh, you don’t do anything, you just play in a band and wander around playing these protest songs but, what’s the good of it? What have you got to show for it? What’s the point of all of this?” In the process of writing this album I was really doubting myself and really doubting whether I was actually meant to be in a band. I had to come out the other end of it finding some meaning in it—the purpose of my life. By this stage, I’ve dropped out of university postgrad twice, just keeping up with music commitments. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life or if any of this would work out, it was a process!

Why is making music important to you?

JM: That’s a great question. Music is the thing that I just keep coming back to all of the time and from that perspective it’s just something that feels cathartic to me. It’s the only thing that I’ve kept doing in my life, writing songs since I was twelve years old, because it helps me process that way that I’m feeling. It’s something that I can’t get away from, it’s something that I really need. It’s also my entire social community, all of my friends, it’s my entire life! I am so grateful that I have gotten to live out my 20s in this incredible music community in Melbourne. People aren’t just creating really interesting art but they also have a vibrant discussion of political issues and different ways people can live their lives outside of the common norms we’re told. It’s the most nourishing and exciting way to live my life and I’m very thankful that I have done this in the end.

Do you find it hard to open up to write your lyrics and to be so honest?

JM: No, not really. I think that’s one thing that I don’t find that hard. I’m a very earnest songwriter. I find it more hard to not be open and honest about things. Writing songs is the thing I have to do and the challenging thing comes afterwards, I have to put that out there into the world. I have to analyse what I have written down and be like; what does that mean? What is that honesty? And, where do you go from there?

Every member of Cable Ties is integral to your sound; what kind of conversation do you feel you were having musically between one another on the album?

JM: When we write songs we get into a room and someone will have a bass line or a drum beat, we’ll just play and play and play for hours, we really like to jam for a long time. We might not necessarily go many places with the jam, we might just sit in the one spot to see how that feels, and make sure it sits well on your body. That’s where everything starts from. Then we go; what does this song feel like? What is it evoking? The lyrics will come after we’ve written the music and we’ve created a musical emotion as a scaffold to work off. The one thing that we had for this album is that we all committed to doing it; jamming, practising and writing twice a week, and going away for weekend and locking ourselves in. We worked and worked and worked on things until we had it right.

We wrote “Sandcastles” when we went to a house out where Shauna [Boyle; drums] grew up as a kid. We spent the whole weekend trying to put together this song, it didn’t end up making it onto the record, it was not working and a bit convoluted. In the last two and a half hours of the weekend we were frustrated and were like, let’s just have a “hit out”! We started with a simple beat, from there we came up with most of the music for “Sandcastles” in those last hours. We were like, wow! …we felt like we had finally got through the slog of the convoluted song and the payoff was coming up with something simple and to the point.

What inspired the album title, Far Enough?

JM: It’s a lyric at the start of “Hope”. The lyric is: my uncle Pete is complaining about the Greenies, he said that they have gone too far but I say, Pete they don’t go far enough. We took it from that line but we liked it because it is somewhat ambiguous in its meaning. It can have many meanings, it can be a question like; have we gone far enough? Has the world gone too far? We think it spoke to a lot of the questions on the album.

You mentioned that your lyrics came from an introspective, questioning of self and vulnerable place; how did you grow while making the album?

JM: I became a lot more comfortable with being a musician. I became a lot more grateful for the life that I’ve had in the music community. I’m more confident to live my life according to the values of this band and that community and of looking after the people around me—existing in the world where you fight for the things that you believe in. Don’t do stuff because you want the “right” career or anything like that, it made me really, really commit to a life of activism, being in the music community and being a musician.

Photo: Spike Vincent.

On the track “Anger’s Not Enough” it takes over a minute before the drums kick in; what was the idea behind leaving the space at its start?

JM: Nick [Brown; bass] did that at the start. I have this pedal that was made by this guy in Newcastle that has this pedal company called, Beautiful Noise Effects. The pedal is named, When The Sun Explodes. It’s a reverb pedal and a feedback pedal. To make the sound at the start of that song Nick just had all of the pedals on my board on – Overdrive and two boost things that I have and that pedal – he was pressing the buttons on it. That song is quite sonically different to the one that comes before it, we wanted it to sit out on it’s on. By the time it comes in with harsh and loud bass and guitar we wanted people to really be listening after that beginning, that something a little unsettling.

That part gives you a real suspenseful feeling.

JM: Good! That was the idea.

You’ve said that “It’s an album that is supposed to get you out of bed when you don’t feel like you can face it any more”; what helps get you out of bed when life gets overwhelming and you’d rather stay in bed?

JM: My dog, Barry, I’m looking at him right now [laughs]. Apart from the dog, sometimes getting up when you really don’t want to is just putting one foot in front of the other and doing something simple. Some days it’s just get out of bed, make coffee, see what’s next. Often then I’ll see something in my day that I can be thankful for—my friends, the music I have in my life. Those are the things that I live for! They have a really positive influence on me. Also, when things are hard and the world looks like it’s turning to shit, just remember even if you’re an activist and going to protests and doing everything you can and feel like you’re losing the battle, the fight in itself is intrinsically important. The purpose of it is not just to win the battle but fight for the things you believe in, things that you think are important; that’s part of your identity and way of life. Things that can get me out of bed for the day can be different each day.

In the spirit of the album’s main theme; where do you find hope?

JM: Hope on the album is an active emotion, it’s something that you have to find out of necessity to keep going. What gives me hope sometimes is trying to logic my way out of things like, you wake up and there’s another instance of environmental degradation happening and you say, “that’s contributing to climate change and we’re losing this! What the fuck are we going to do? We’re all doomed!” And then just going, it might be true but what good is it for you to be despairing about this, it makes the problem worse and you feel worse as well. Even if you don’t logically think this fight can be won, if you give into that fear then of course it’s never going to be won! Hope for me sometimes comes from a little bit of going, ok this might be hopeless but that’s no good for anyone, so you better believe somewhere that the fight is worth it and you could do something. If you don’t believe it, it never will happen. For me that’s something that I fall back on a lot when I’m in the worst depths of feeling doom and gloom about the world.

What’s your favourite thing about the new record?

JM: I like the conversations that I’ve ended up having about it, they’re so interesting. It is vulnerable… talk about it, face it! The conversations we get to have are personal, interesting and let you connect with other people. My favourite track changes every day but right now it’s “Lani”.

Why that one?

JM: I can really sink into it. You can’t play that track right unless you relax into it. The guitar playing is really emotive and expressive. If I don’t feel those things, the emotions within myself, then I don’t play it properly. Sometimes it’s the scariest song for me to play! When I do it right though, it is so satisfying. It can also really turn around a gig, or when I get on stage and I’m feeling nervous or things aren’t going right.

What are you doing while locked down?

JM: The job I had before I was supposed to go on tour, working for a university, I can do it from working at home. I’m lucky I can still work, and that they took me back after I was “bye! I’m going on tour” [laughs]. Looking after my dog that’s barking at people right now, he’s seven months now so he’s taking up a lot of my time. I’m probably going to go back to uni if I’m being honest, because it’s probably going to be a little while before we get to go anywhere.

Do you write songs all the time or only when you have to write for an album?

JM: Normally I write all the time. I was writing one just before we were leaving for tour. At the moment I’m not playing because after everything that happened with the tour being cancelled – we’d been rehearsing in the lead up to that and doing a lot of playing – after it was cancelled I really felt like I needed a bit of a mental break before I started writing new stuff. I’ve put the guitar down for a few weeks. I’m feeling like picking it up again now. I have a loop pedal now, so the rest of isolation will be me playing with my loop pedal over and over again—I hope my neighbours are ready!

Please checkout: CABLE TIES. CT on Facebook. Far Enough out now via Poison City Records (AUS/ NZ) and Merge Records (Rest Of World).