Program’s Jonno Ross-Brewin: “We’re all about jamming in as many riffs and melody as possible”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Melbourne’s Program play catchy as fuck power pop. The songs off their debut album Show Me get stuck in your head, so much so that later in your day after listening to them you’ll find yourself humming the melodies to yourself. We spoke to Program co-founder Jonno Ross-Brewin.

Program released their debut album Show Me in October last year; have you been working on anything new?

JR-B: Rory [Heane] and I have been working on stuff for quite a while now. We’re constantly working on stuff. We’re working on the next album, we’re in the early stages.

How long were you working on Show Me for? It took a while, right?

JR-B: It was because it was the first record for the band, we didn’t really mess around with demos or anything. You could say Rory and I were writing songs for a couple of years before it came out. We were in another band before this one for years, we were kind of a mathy-punk-emo-jam band. For a couple of years we started playing guitar, because neither of us played guitar that much. It probably took a year from when we formed the group.

What inspired you towards the sound you have now?

JR-B: How we were feeling about everything. I used to write much more angsty stuff when I was younger because that’s how I felt. Now that I’m older – I’m not sure if it comes across in the music though – there’s a resignation and acceptance and maybe even a slight comedy about stuff. I’m seeing things in a lighter way, I’m being a bit lighter about things. I still feel the same ways I did then but, I’m just better at dealing with stuff. I know what is useful and what to act on and what you can’t really change.

Lyrically Show Me is quite personal.

JR-B: Especially for me. The tracks that I wrote were pretty personal. There’s definitely a mix in writing but the ones that I sung on were ‘Tailwind Blues’, ‘Program’, ‘Unexpected Plans’ and ‘They Know’.

Was there anything in particular that you were going through in your life when you wrote them?

JR-B: Yeah. ‘Unexpected Plans’ and ‘Tailwind Blues’ are basically based on a failed romantic endeavour, where I flew over to the USA for somebody.

Awww man, that sucks, I’m sorry. Why did you decide to kick the record off with ‘Another Day’?

JR-B: That’s what we’re feeling at the moment, there’s elements of repetition and boredom of our lives, that kind of stuff.

I noticed the album has really bright sounding jangly guitars all over it.

JR-B: A lot of that is just from the guitar that I started learning to play guitar on, it’s an old Japanese Fender imitation thing. The stuff that we’ve been writing is definitely inspired by Big Star and more poppy kind of stuff like The Kinks, a lot of Replacements—a lot of heartfelt power pop.

What did you listen to growing up?

JR-B: Neither of us really came from musical families at all. Our parents are the kind of people that would just listen to The Eagles or Bob Marley. When we were kids Rory and I listened to a lot of stuff that I’m probably a bit too embarrassed to mention [laughs]. I was a massive Red Hot Chilli Peppers fan when I was a kid, and that’s what got me into music. Later on there was stuff like The Strokes, stuff like that has massively influenced us.

I’ve seen Red Hot Chilli Peppers live five times and every time they’ve totally sucked. I was so disappointed, because growing up I’d listen to them too.

JR-B: Yeah, I feel exactly the same way too. I only saw them once, when I was eighteen, and that was the last time I listened to them in a non-ironic haha sort of way. They came out for album Stadium Arcadium when they were well after their prime, I was very disappointed. I thought that I was watching little robot ants from a distance.

Pretty much everyone I talk to that’s seen them says they are boring live. You hear them recorded, see their videos and live footage of them overseas and I think, they might be great to see live, then you do and it’s boring! I actually fell asleep at one of their shows.

JR-B: Where was it?

At an Entertainment Centre like a big arena.

JR-B: That’s probably why, because the place was too big. I don’t really rate big venues. All my favourite moments of live music have always been pretty intimate, in bars and smaller settings… except The Pixies, they’re always amazing no matter where they are. I saw them at Golden Plains recently and I saw them ten years ago at Festival Hall, both times amazing!

What’s been one of your favourite musical moments in an intimate setting?

JR-B: Probably my favourite band, who we’re all mates with too, is Possible Humans—I LOVE seeing those guys. We played their launch at The Tote. Every time I see them I love it. They’re really lovely dudes, amazingly lovely dudes!

You and Rory started Program around 2016 but have known each other since the first week of primary school…

JR-B: Yeah, since we were five!

That’s pretty amazing to have a friendship for that long.

JR-B: It’s wild! We live together as well. It helps us make music, we understand what each other wants.

Can you tell us a little bit about the recording of Show Me?

JR-B: We recorded most of it live except the vocals and a few overdubs. We did that in a day down in Geelong, in Billy [Gardner]’s warehouse. Billy from Anti Fade has this little rehearsal studio down in these old army barracks in Geelong. We drove down to Geelong for the day.

What made you want to do it live?

JR-B: We just heard his Civic recordings and we thought that sounded amazing! I’m pretty sure they did most of it live as well, so we were really happy for him to do it. There wasn’t too much thought actually, we were like, let’s just do this! We weren’t even sure about it all to be honest until we heard it.

We would have officially formed the band in 2018, Rory and I had songs we were doing but we hadn’t officially got anyone together. We were probably just jamming for about a year because we didn’t even know what we were going to sound like and it took a while. We started playing a few shows, mainly house parties. Not long after that Rory bumped into Billy at a party and Billy said “I’d like to record you guys”. We were lucky. When Billy was mixing it, he got an idea of it and just asked if he could put it out. He seemed to really like it. Things just really worked out.

I love that there’s so much melody on the album.

JR-B: There’s a lot of that. We’re all about jamming in as many riffs and melody as possible.

What was the thought behind the album art?

JR-B: The idea was Rory’s but it was a group effort. We went through a lot of ideas of me trying to draw up stuff and it was getting close to the release date and Rory was like “What about kids playing Four Square?” I found a cool image of it and the album is called Show Me and the vibe is the idea of having a young view of the world, not knowing what to do. I did the little squiggly bits then our bassist James Kane came in – he does a lot of posters and stuff so he’s really good on the design perspective – we put it together. I did the drawings and James put it together on Photoshop and did the font.

It sounds like everything just happens really organically for you guys?

JR-B: Yeah, I think it’s because we’re all really old friends. Jessie [Fernandez] and the two James’ we’ve all known each other for ten years. It was all very low-key, let’s just get these dudes because we like them. Jessie saw our first show and told us she’d been playing keys and asked if she could play keys for us, and after six months we said, let’s do it! She’s not on the album because we recorded it before she joined. Hopefully keys are going to be really prominent on the next recording.

What kind of direction are you headed in now sound-wise?

JR-B: With the songs we’ve done we’ve set it up so there’s kind of different genres in each song – some songs are more punky, others are more poppy, some are even folky – I think we’re going to still run with that for a bit. We’ll keep doing this until it sounds shit and then we’ll probably try something else.

What’s the part of songwriting you find challenging?

JR-B: I find the details challenging [laughs]. I’m better at coming up with chords and a vocal melody. Rory is a much better musician than I am, he’s really good at all the technical stuff and riffs.

My lyrics are very direct and personal. I don’t like them to be too overthought. I like them being accessible and easy to hear but upon more analysis they mean more. I try to do that, I don’t know if that actually happens though [laughs].

I really like the track ‘Memory’ on the record I think it’s a good blend of Rory and I as writers. There’s not much effort put into it but I really like the result, it sees effortless.

Do you edit yourself much?

JR-B: Definitely. Usually I’ll write on my phone and then go over it and fine tune it over a period of months. It never ends up being anywhere near what I initially write. I always reduce it to all that’s needed. We definitely spend a lot of time on the tracks.

Who are the songwriters you admire?

JR-B: My gods are David Bowie and Neil Young. I like how epic Bowie is and how heartfelt Young is. There’s a lot I like though. Maybe Ray Davies as well, I like his tongue-in-cheek and catchiness.

What’s been influencing the songs you’ve been writing lately?

JR-B: The same everyday stuff and personal things.

What do you do outside of music?

JR-B: I work full-time as an Operating Theatre Technician. I set up for surgery. Most of my music just takes up everything around that.

What an interesting job.

JR-B: It is at the start. I work in a smallish hospital with the same surgeons, so you get to know each surgeon and what they’re like then it becomes pretty repetitive and dull. But in some ways it’s good because I’ll be sitting there and in my head can be coming up with lyrics. Rory does the same thing, we both work in the same place.

Wow! You guys are so linked.

JR-B: Yep, that’s it!

It’s pretty special to share so many things in life with someone.

JR-B: Yeah, I’m pretty grateful. It’s pretty amazing!

Anything else you want to tell me?

JR-B: I think at the end of all this isolation period there’s going to be so many people coming out with stuff. Rory and I are working on demos. We’re just trying to make good songs, nice songs. We’re on to the next one and excited about that!

Please check out: PROGRAM. Show Me out on Anti Fade Records. Program on Facebook. Program on Instagram.

The Stroppies get set to release new LP Look Alive!: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Handmade collage by B.

Melbourne band The Stroppies’ music is the best parts of jangly British C86 and New Zealand’s Flying Nun in its heyday with their own transformative modernisation. There’s a lot of bright moments to be found on forthcoming LP Look Alive! (out May 1 on UK label Tough Love Records), shining moments of poetry and simplicity. We spoke to Stroppies’ guitarist-vocalist Gus Lord to shed light on the new album.

Your new album Look Alive! was written mostly on the road, which I understand is a different process for The Stroppies than what you’d normally do?

GUS LORD: Yeah, I’ve never done anything like that before. Last year was really full throttle. We were in plans to go back to Europe this year, making new music felt just like the right thing to do. It was an interesting process working out of a notebook in a car.

What was the first song you wrote for this LP?

GL: The first one we wrote for the album was “Burning Bright”. We wrote that one before we went on tour actually on a Saturday morning screw around with me and Rory [Heane; drums]. The original demo is quite strange.

We like strange! Strange is good.

GL: Yeah, strange is good! There’s meters of tape in our studio space that would have a lot of stranger things on them that may one day see the light of day.

I hope so. What kinds of things were inspiring the songs?

GL: From my perspective and process, I’m just putting down words and putting threads together; I have to keep follow that, until those threads inform me what the themes are. Once I get an idea of what the themes are going to be, I fishhook that onto a personal experience. With the last record [Whoosh!] I was writing from the perspective of other people, whereas this record is a little more personal. They’re not confessional songs but they’re going a little further under the skin than the last set of songs did.

Did you find it harder to write more personal songs?

GL: I think they’re still very much stories, my definition of what makes a personal song is probably far removed from your Ed Sheeran or whoever is popular right now. Not explicitly really, when you’re doing it right things are relatively unconscious. I think songwriting is just hard full stop, at least it is for me.

What’s the story behind title track “Look Alive!”?

GL: When you frame something in the context of a title for a body of work it subtly re-contextualises it. It seemed like a funny thing to call the record. It insinuates alertness and has those connotations to army lingo. For me, I just thought the two words looked nice together. I had the phrase written in my phone for a little while and when we decided to call the album that, I was looking for a name for the album’s title song; I managed to whittle that into the second verse.

I’ve been looking at all the track names and it’s almost like it’s telling a story as you’re progressing through the album.

GL: Yeah. If you’re thinking of the first two singles that we put out “Holes In Everything” is a sweet affectionate song, the sentiment at least. Whereas “Burning Bright” is more discerning and unsure of itself. Both songs are about relationships, different parts of those relationships.

Where do you write the song “Aisles Of The Supermarket”?

GL: That was one of the other songs that we wrote at home. It was partly written in our front room, we recorded four different demos of it and it wasn’t until the final moment when we went into another person’s studio and ran a bunch of tape loops behind it that the song found its feet. That was a Claudia [Serfaty; bass-vocals] one, she had the poem that we put to the music.

You recorded your album in December last year?

GL: Yeah, it was a pretty quick turnaround.

Your last album Whoosh! was recorded in a studio and your work before that was recorded at home, now you’re back to doing stuff at home again; how’s it feel to be back in the more familiar environment, your own space?

GL: Better! I feel a sense of ease and comfort. A precedent that I wanted to establish with the band was not being locked into any one style of recording or benchmark of production. We’ve always done stuff fifteen instruments on a tiny little cassette player and then big studio affairs. It felt like that this recording was a nice synthesis of the two. We got to track it at home with Alex Macfarlane who put out our first record and has been helping us out with stuff since the band first started. We took the master tapes to the studio where we recorded Whoosh! and mixed it down there. I definitely prefer having space and time and my own house to whittle out ideas. It’s a nice working process for sure.

On Whoosh! you used rain sticks and an old door frame for percussion; did you use anything interesting on Look Alive! to create sounds?

GL: I bought a sampling keyboard from Cash Converters which is pretty much all over the record. It was a crummy, beaten up thing that runs on floppy disks and we just ran a bunch of stuff into that and tracked it in. The good thing about a sampling keyboard is you save a lot of space. There’s nothing too obtuse that went on this record beyond your regular guitar music fanfare.

I love that you picked up something inexpensive at Cash Converters and used that on your new record. Using stuff like that you can get sounds no one else has!

GL: Of course! At a hundred bucks a new piece of gear can stimulate parts of your process or give a certain project and certain sound. When your outgoings are that low it’s worth taking the financial risk and seeing what happens, that was a good one for us.

I’ve read that when you were making Whoosh! you were having a little self-doubt; are you more confident writing this time around?

GL: No, not really [laughs]. It’s just par for the course. The greatest joy I feel in the process is when I’m doing it alone or when we’re actually in the process of working the songs out. Everything after that is a bit overwhelming! We end up getting through it none the less.

You made the song “Entropy” from your last album by yourself didn’t you?

GL: Yeah. I recorded a demo of it which I think is the definitive version of it. The version on the album is cool but… it’s the one song that I guess for lack of time, we hadn’t learnt it so I recorded it. It came out pretty cool, it has a different flavour from everything else.

Totally. That song was one of my standout favourites of last year. The way you sing it, the feeling in it… it’s one of those songs you hear and you’re like, how does something this cool even exist?

GL: That you so much, that’s very kind.

What’s one of your favourite things about your new record?

GL: It’s a little more playful and organic. I feel like every time we write and record we’re moving closer to what this band should be, we’re figuring stuff out. I think with a lot of other bands I’ve been in, generally around this time you start to feel malaise, whereas with this I feel invigorated with this to keep going. There’s still a lot of meat left on the bone as far as songwriting.

What is the vision for where The Stroppies want to be?

GL: It’s really changed in light of what’s happened globally. We had another tour planned, obviously this record was going to get toured but now that we’re bound to home it’s all been reconfigured. I’m really just thinking we should make another record ‘cause—why not?! More broadly speaking I try not to expect too much from it, if any opportunities present themselves grab ‘em by the horns and enjoy the experiencing.

While you’ve been in isolation you made a film clip for “Burning Bright” using candles and paper.

GL: Yes. It was born of economy really. In my head I had a broader more grandiose vision of what it would entail but the reality of the footage wasn’t as such. Me and Claudia are obviously a couple and we have a really good creative relationship. It was just us playing around one isolation weekend with a face mask, Plasticine and candles.

It turned out pretty fun!

GL: Thanks, I thought so. You’re so spoiled for choice and possibility with modern technology, it’s ridiculous! We’ve shot all of our videos on iPhones. This one was shot on a nice camera and edited in iMovie. To my eyes they’re totally fine, passable [laughs].

I’ve always loved what people do with what they have. It fosters and nourishes creativity and imagination.

GL: Yeah. Buying a 4-track recorder was a massive thing for me, it stimulated and unlocked parts of my creativity I hadn’t really facilitated purely because of economy. I tried doing digital recording but I guess it’s because you have access to hundreds of different effects, there’s just so many different options. You can spend months twiddling knobs fine tuning a bass guitar sound when in reality, all you’re doing is creating a smoke screen for parts of the songs you don’t want to develop because you don’t’ feel confident with it. When I got a 4-track it was, ok, drums, bass, guitar and then you have the last track and you’re like, better write some lyrics and put something on that. Economy can be very useful in that regard.

Who did the artwork for Look Alive!?

GL: A guy called Nick Dahlen. I had done the artwork for our previous two EPs the experience of doing that was one I didn’t want to repeat. When we entertained the idea of doing another record and having it ready for this period of time, because it had been such a palaver to get the other two done, we actually got him to do the art work before we finished writing any of the songs or recording. It was a funny way to do it but it ended up working really well. I like the fact that there’s the ants on the cover, you think about an army of ants and obviously the army lingo of Look Alive! In a weird serendipitous moment here are three ants and only three out of the four of us made this record. It worked.

Why was it only the three of you?

GL: We had a pretty aggressively busy year last year, at the end of the second tour that we did that had a myriad of trials and tribulations – it was a tough tour – we all sat down… me and Claudia live together and we know we’re just going write. We said, “This is what we want to do, these are the days; what do you reckon?” And it just ended up being us three. It’s not in any malice or ill will, Adam said he just needed to live a life and that’s totally cool.

What were some of things on the tour that were hard for the band?

GL: We’d been to Europe a month and a half prior and had a really good tour, coming back the second time we’d driven ourselves around. We thought the drives will be longer and we’ll be going through more medieval towns and things will be harder to navigate so we’ll get a tour driver. The guy we got was a real piece of work! It was a massive buzz kill. Slot into that administrative and organisational things that were overlooked, it really put a damper on everything. Bad hotel rooms. Cancelled shows. I had to leave my keyboard in Austria because the airline was going to charge me $800 US to bring it home. There was lots of bits and pieces that added up, it was really relentless. It bore us down a bit. I guess, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

What’s one of the best things you saw while on tour?

GL: It wasn’t so much about what we saw because you rarely get to see anything at all just by nature of the rhythm of that experience—it’s get in the car and drive to show, then you’re in a hotel room. It’s just more about what we felt and what we experienced, there were so really great shows! The fact that you can travel to the Northern Hemisphere and people can turn up, it completely befuddles me. Beyond the thought of annoyances and headaches of the experiences the shows were such a pleasure, which was really cool.

What feelings do you get when you play live?

GL: I get this sort of complete disassociation from myself where I become completely unconscious of what’s going on—that’s when it’s good! When it’s bad it’s the polar opposite, a heightened self-consciousness, an ultra-awareness and my brain will meander off into absurd places; what I ate for breakfast? What am I going to wear tomorrow? That’s the worst end of it.

I always love asking anyone I interview this next question; why is music important to you?

GL: It’s something that I’ve been able to invest myself in and in turn define myself by. It’s afforded me friendships, community, camaraderie and solace. It plays a very important role in my life.

Have you always played music?

GL: No, I didn’t really grow up around much music. My friend Alex who I’ve played in a bunch of bands with and who has been very supportive of everything that I’ve done, his dad and my dad were friends since they were fifteen growing up in Sydney. Alex and I were born two months apart so we’ve been pals since we wore born. When I was around thirteen or fourteen, I’d see him and his dad play music all the time and I started because I got sick of sitting on the couch watching them!

Please check out: THE STROPPIES. Look Alive! LP out May 1 via Tough Love Records. TS on Facebook. TS on Instagram.