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! 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.