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.

Berlin-based Musician and Artist Saba Lou Khan: “From the very beginning, from my birth on, I was surrounded by a lot of music”

Handmade collage by B.

Growing up in a music and art-filled household, creating is second nature to Saba Lou. If she’s not crafting garage-soul gems, she’s drawing, painting, collaging, sewing and just making the world in general a more interesting and bright place with her visual creations. Her latest work – Rat-Tribution Now – is a collaboration with her father, musician, producer, artist and label owner, King Khan. The project “deals with the nefarious origins of the goddess Kali, exposing the poverty stricken community of the Musahar people of Northern India and supernatural feminist empowerment. It is dedicated to the memory of the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls of Canada.” We spoke to Saba Lou as they were working on the project, which recently debuted as part of the Pop Kultr Festival in Berlin.  

In our correspondence you mentioned that you’ve been busy; what have you been working on?

SABA LOU KHAN: Right now, I’m actually part of a large art project that is going to be shown at the Pop-Kultur festival, which was supposed to be an actual festival in late August in Berlin but, has now been reformatted to be a complete online experience. This means that our plan has changed a lot, when I say “our”, I mean my father [Arish Ahmad Khan a.k.a. King Khan] and myself. It was his idea, he wrote a story that is called The Tail of The Rat Eaters it has been changed to Rat-Tribution Now. I’m going to be illustrating it. It’s narrated by Joe Coleman, the painter. It’s a big load of work because it was supposed to be a big multi-media stop-motion animation playing in the background and paintings with the production. It was going to be a much larger production than anything we’ve ever done before. Now due to the global crisis, it’s very responsible and I’m happy we’ve changed it. That leaves me with a lot of work to do. I’m really happy to do it.

Where have you been finding creative inspiration lately?

SLK: For this specific project, it’s connected to the history of India and the lowest of the low caste, the “untouchables”, the so-called “Rat Eaters”—the Musahar people. The history of something to do with the culture that my family comes from has inspired me, just the plain facts and of course the imagery and photos of the Musahar people. I’ve been doing portraits, it’s not about specifically portraying real people; it’s a fictional story that my father wrote which is based upon several different stories, and to some extent dramatised. It’s still a personal cultural history situation, although we are not connected to this caste.

Otherwise I’m not working on any other creative things parallel to this, because it takes up a lot of time and brain space, and it’s important to me it’s done properly and with conviction.

You’ve told me that you’re an early riser; are there any rituals or things that you do in the morning to kick your day off right?

SLK: Yes, I do have very specific ways of organising my days, especially now in quarantine living with my parents. I was not planning on living here again, I sort of see myself as a guest. I was going to travel to Canada actually. My routine is that I get up really early, especially now in the summertime, between 4:00-4:30 in the morning. The first thing I do besides washing my face and brushing my teeth is to drink a lot of warm water, which is my favourite drink in general. I have endometriosis, a lot of things in my life go towards living without pain; it includes a very strict diet and very strict regulation in terms of exercise and all sorts of things concerning the body. Just drinking lots of water and taking care of bowel movement and these things, are a little bit more important in my case than someone who may not be painfully affected from skipping out on a routine like this. I do a lot of exercising and stretching. I practice Kung Fu.

There’s other things I do throughout my day that are not fixed to any time. I started playing the double bass, practising that every day. I’m still very, very beginner. I’m playing classically with a bow. At this point it’s about bow control and growing the muscle to even manoeuvre the creature.

There’s also things like, I eat at 1pm. I interval fast, I think some people call it intermittent fasting. Those kinds of things are poised throughout the day when I have something specific planned.

My sister and many of my friends have incredibly painful endometriosis, so I do understand how debilitating it can be and how important it is to find ways that work for you to manage it.

SLK: Absolutely. In my case I was so lucky to get diagnosed and get treatment so young. I didn’t have the classic endometriosis of twenty years of not being taken seriously and hospitalised-several-times experience. I don’t have a problem with sticking to these sorts of things, some would say I have insane self-discipline. Which I’m sure it has to do with not just my personality [laughs], but also growing up and encountering the very free and chaotic artist lifestyle and household I was raised in. Sometimes I have moments of realisation where I see that, wow, I am putting so much effort, subconsciously, into not having pain. It’s pretty intense sometimes to realise how much it defines your life.

What is it that interests you about making music?

SLK: From the very beginning, from my birth on, I was surrounded by a lot of music. It’s not the kind of thing that I had to discover on my own. Of course I discovered it from my family household but it was always just around; when I say always I mean in every way, not just playing in the background but also being the profession of my father, the profession of most family friends. My sister and I were always exposed to music all of the time. It is my father’s life and also my mother’s (my mother is also a seamstress and has always sewn my father’s stage costumes). My father taught me and my sister how to play instruments and sing and how to perceive music, just because it’s his trade. Of course our parents would want to pass on our family trade to us. In some other cases people grow against what their parents are doing, and they do something very different.

Music has changed a lot over our lifetime, my sister is seventeen and I’m nineteen. I enjoy classical music a lot, I’m not well-versed yet [laughs]. That’s something that was around when I was growing up, but I still learnt appreciation for melody and harmony in a non-classical sense from way before, so I can discover it with a deeply engrained education in terms of celebrating music in general and that’s really valuable.

Can you tell us a little bit about your evolution as a songwriter? I know you started really young and before writing songs you were writing poems, stories and doing creative writing.

SLK: I wouldn’t say it like that, I would say it’s the other way around. The songs that I wrote very, very early on were what I would say, outbursts of a very small child, and my father recorded it because it’s his trade. He had all the equipment around to just do it. Referring to the first album I wrote myself – everything before was co-written by my father, it was a hobby and activity of ours just to do together – I was fourteen when I first started writing those songs. It came out when I was seventeen. At the time I just had the urge – no pressure at all – to just write my own thing, to try out creating music in general on my own.

Creative writing has always been around and I’ve always written things but, it’s really become more dominant over the past few years. Although nothing is published, I’m working on a bunch of things that will eventually be published. I enjoy it very much. It’s obviously, a different way of telling stories.

What’s a song that you have written that you’re really proud of?

SLK: Those songs on the current album Novum Ovum. The last songs on the last two albums. The last song on Planet Enigma is completely different to all the other songs, I was starting to find a stranger niche. Now on the new album Novum Ovum I like the diversity of topics and the variation of vagueness in explaining these topics. “Humpback In Time” is very dear to me because it’s so far the only Star Trek song I’ve released; I have a bunch more waiting. I will eventually put out a whole Star Trek concept album! [laughs]. I love Star Trek so much.

I think Novum Ovum has a lot to do with maturing. The first album I wrote when I was thirteen or fourteen, of course it has a certain delicacy and youthfulness and innocence that you can’t create later on in life, it’s touching in that way. I don’t identify with it like that anymore and the current album is definitely more current in my state of development, of course I feel more connected to it. I am glad the first album happened though and that I have an artefact of that stage of my life.

You mentioned you’ve been working on visual art lately; I really love the daily collages you post.

SLK: I didn’t really make any collages before the first series I did, the Ballers and flowers. That came about because a friend of mine forgot a basketball magazine and left it at my house. I don’t really have anything to do with sports [laughs]. I was flipping through it and I thought the expressions of concentration and exasperation that athletes have and are captured in, are so easy to put into a different context and make it really funny also. I really enjoy making them because it’s such a different approach to creating composition as opposed to sketching and painting, stuff that I have experience in.

Is there anything that frustrates or challenges you about all the things you make?

SLK: I’ve always seen myself as an artist and I always enjoy making things but I don’t really see myself trying to make my career with art. I definitely want to go and study Botany and have a scientific career as the main focus of my future. Art is currently the main thing happening in my life but I don’t really want to shape the rest of my life around it. It could be said that it’s a challenge to define how much art takes up my life. Inspiration isn’t really a challenge because I don’t pressure myself in that way, because I’m not working as an artist, working for a living or support kids or a partner with a struggling art career. Creating the art isn’t really a challenge because I’m just free to have an idea and do it. The biggest thing is to weigh up how much time it takes up against other things and learning to be OK with that.

‘Third Wheel’ collage by Saba Lou.

Why do you want to study Botany?

SLK: I would describe myself as a person that wants to discover a million things. Botany is the number one thing, for reasons I will mention in a second… I want to say some other examples like Psychology, all sorts of History, Linguistics, and just classical music. Lots of things interest me but along my entire life, Botany is one that really stands out to me. To make a decision to dedicate your career and life to something you really have to be aware and confident, not just in a you enjoy it and it fulfils you way but; what does it do to benefit the entire Earth? How can you feel about your place in society with this career?

Another example of something I was interested in – because I like doing tiny little things with my fingers – is jewellery making. It has chemistry which I really love too. I noticed very quickly, before I did any study, was that I’m not comfortable with the idea of dedicating my life to learning a trade where advancing in your trade means advancing up a ladder of decadence and money, that is only available to a few people—that really bothered me.

After school, I worked in a bakery for ten months, which I had to stop early because of my endometriosis getting really bad at that time. I remember that I didn’t want to be a Baker for the rest of my life. It also has chemistry! It’s something I felt more comfortable spending my time learning.

Botany is something that has always followed me throughout my entire life. My German grandparents I saw here, much more frequently than my Indian grandmother in Canada, have a wonderful garden and live right next to a beautiful forest. I was exposed to nature with them although I was raised in the city. I manifested an appreciation of life and an attention to detail with them. I find it really beautiful to dedicate my life to the care and study of life. Botany connects a lot of things: my scientific urge, it’s art and beauty—it all comes together really nicely. I can feel myself spending my life in it in good conscience.

Please check out sabalouland.com and SLK on Instagram. Find Planet Enigma HERE and Novum Ovum HERE. Rat-Tribution Now on vinyl HERE.