Atlanta X Melbourne Hip-Hop Collaborators Suggs: “Artistry in the world is on the brink of coming back to a place of rediscovering what it means to be punk”

Original photo: Jamie Wdziekonski. Handmade collage by B.

Suggs is a hip-hop project from Melbourne musician Zak Olsen (Traffik Island/ORB/ Hierophants/The Frowning Clouds) and Atlanta multi-instrumentalist and rapper Sheldon Suggs. Their first release We Suggs was conceived from collaborating over the internet to create a thrilling alternative, psychedelic hip-hop that’s a real triumph. With lush sounds, a refreshing adventurous musical approach and an exciting original voice gliding the beats, Suggs hasn’t left the Gimmie HQ stereo since it dropped in September.

How are you going?

SHELDON SUGGS: Pretty well. It’s 8 o’clock here so I’m just chilling out [laughs]. Today I took it easy. It’s raining here and the seasons here in Atlanta are changing… just trying to keep sane with my dog and my cat and working on some other stuff here that me and Zak are working on.

What’s it like where you live? Did you grow up in Atlanta?

SS: It’s the South… I grew up between a couple of different places. I was born in California, went to high school in the Chicago area, my mom lives in Atlanta. Though I’ve always moved around a lot, Atlanta has always been a home base. It’s nice, I love Atlanta! It’s a US metropolitan city, probably one of the bigger ones these days. One of the coolest parts about it, for better or for worse, is that you get a good pulse on how people are feeling that are out in the street, dealing with each other and doing things, you kind of get more of a personable, accurate representation of how people are feeling.

How did you first discover music?

SS: Hmmm… I want to think about it and give you my absolute first trigger for music. I can’t necessarily give you the first one but I can get close. The first CD that I ever bought was NSYNC’s No Strings Attached [laughs], I was so happy about it! I knew all the songs, I used to perform for my parents, it was the funniest thing. Besides from that, I was in a band in school, I played a number of different instruments, I still do. As far as rap’s concerned, the first rap CD that I bought was probably either Common’s Be album or Kanye’s College Dropout—both were very, very important for me. They gave me a lot of inspiration! I’ll never forget when Kanye West dropped his single ‘Jesus Walks’ and when I heard it I freaked out!. I think I was in 7th Grade. I heard it on the radio with my mom in the car and I was like; stop the car! What song is this?! I demanded to know what song it was because I thought it was so crazy and so different, someone was on the radio talking about a topic like Jesus! [laughs]. All the knowledge I had of Jesus at that point was my parents taking me to church. To hear this rapper rapping about Jesus in a way that wasn’t corny, it was crazy!

It’s a powerful song. I love that era of Kanye. All the stuff he was dropping was really cool and different. When Kanye came out he was so different to everything else that was happening.

SS: That was totally a different time, for everybody.

So were they the albums that inspired you to start rapping yourself?

SS: Yeah. I heard ‘Jesus Walks’ and then I heard Common. I love that Be album so much because it elaborates on the kind of aesthetic and feeling Kanye had on ‘Jesus Walks’—nice, good, soul food! It’s nothing special or flashy but when you eat a good home-cooked meal, as long as it sits in your stomach well, it tastes familiar and gives you that feeling of satisfaction, that’s what that did for me at that time.

My older cousins were big into Jay-Z, I was pretty into Jay-Z too at the time, ‘cause that’s who was the biggest star. When Kanye started coming around and you started hearing about his solo stuff and how he’s produced this, that, and the other… it’s crazy looking back on it because that was my champion, so to speak. My older cousins are super cool and I was trying to be like them, trying to catch up and then Kanye comes along and now I have something that I can grab onto and call my own.

As an artist, what are the things that you value?

SS: It’s kind of corny but the authenticity is really big for me. It’s not so much just authenticity, it’s something that’s kind of hard to explain because it’s an art in and of itself to express yourself, clearly, it’s an understatement. In creating, if anybody is creating, if you’re working, most of the time you know what you’re supposed to do and usually the problem, if you have one, is how to do it. Most of the time I feel that you know what to do and know how to go about doing it and that’s the skill that I believe you have to develop as an artist. What I hold near and dear is staying in the proverbial moment, not being afraid and pushing the button when it needs to get pushed and maybe letting go of it when it needs to be let go of is super important. What I value most, as far as artistry, is to know when to go and know when to stop.

When you write lyrics is it from a personal place or more observational of what’s going on around you?

SS: Definitely both for sure. I feel like my artistry has changed a lot over the years. I had actually stopped rapping completely when me and Zak linked up.

How did you meet?

SS: It was a lot of space talk on the internet! Some people like to call me humble, I totally respect that, I just think I know when to be aggressive and know when to hang back… I saw Zak posting things about hip-hop, he posted something to do with J Dilla and I was like, OK, J Dilla! I messaged him because I’m a huge fan of pretty much anything to come out of Australia to be honest—ORB, Traffik Island, anything to do with Zak, I love! We started going back and forth. I wasn’t rapping at the time but when I started picking it back up, I noticed how different it was. It’s been quite a trip witnessing it because I came from a place that I was previously into it, it was more from a place of anger, if I’ve got to be honest! It is what it is …comparison to now is that it’s coming from a place of understanding, a place of purpose and duty.  

What was it that started you rapping again?

SS: We were chatting, I mentioned that I could rap and he sent a beat, we played around with it. The ‘Silence!’ on the album was the first song we ever did. It was funny, we linked up on [King] Gizzard’s [and the Lizard Wizard] tour when it came to Atlanta. There were a couple of people coming up to me and asking me how I know Zak and I said we met online and did a couple tunes here and there, they had heard one of our songs and they were digging it. Once we made that song we never stopped.

That’s one of my favourites on the album. Sending songs back and forth to each other over the internet, you made it over a three month period, right?

SS: Yeah. When we decided, OK let’s put a project together, I’d say it took course over a three month period.

Do you have any favourites on the record? I’m sure you love all of them or you wouldn’t have put them out, obviously.

SS: I’m not that egotistical… most artists are egotistical [laughs]. If I had to say a favourite it would have to be ‘Thank Christ’. I’m not super religious or nothin’. The reason it’s my favourite is because how I’m not super religious but it’s still there kinda what it means to me… its got a special place for me. I wanted to put that song there, it’s kind of clickbait in a way. I know people would see Christ and be like; yo, what’s he talking about with Christ? The song is maybe a wake up, a flash in a moment where you’d expect to talk about the idea of a saviour, the idea that a saviour came to save you… it’s not about believing in it… I think a lot of times self-improvement, sometimes people catch themselves up on it because they think they have to change… what I have gathered from Christ… I grew up getting dragged to church Sunday morning and I wanted to go out and play basketball or do whatever I wanted to do, church isn’t my cup of tea but, what I gathered from those trips is, you don’t have to change yourself to improve yourself, in fact, when you’re improving yourself you’re probably setting the parts of yourself that you don’t want to have anyway if you could choose to. It’s abstract how I put it but that’s why that song is important to me, to refresh people’s minds and put it to them that, hey, it’s not this condemning thing; at the same time it’s poking fun and pointing a finger so to speak at people that claim to be good and do bad. There’s a line in there: I thought this century’s meme was to uplift women. That right there demonstrates to me the purpose of the song is, if we claim to be on the same page about ‘xyz’; why is it not really so?

What about the song ‘Pearls’?

SS: [Laughs] It’s funny that you said that because if ‘Thank Christ’ is my serious favourite, ‘Pearls’ is my wholesome favourite ‘cause…. Zak sent that beat to me late at night, I heard it and instantly wrote the song. I love when that happens because you know it’s going to be a good one. What’s so sick about it is, that’s the song that most people generally speaking would put as their single, we had an idea of what we wanted this album to be taken as and it shows that we can also… the album is largely heavy and heady but ‘Peals’ is like, FYI, hey, we can make a Wiz Khalifa pop single too! [laughs].

I love pop! I can hear the pope elements for sure.

SS: It’s pretty cool having it on there. More often than not I attack the song when I hear the beat, that’s what will start writing lyrics for me. If I hear the track sometimes I automatically know how I want to approach it, like ‘Pearls’ it had this airy, cool, not so serious but awesome vibe. It was a sight for sore eyes because writing had been so intense. I was going so tough on a lot of stuff and being relentless that ‘Pearls’ is a refresher in a more poppy way. I like pop too. It gets spat upon, especially now days ‘cause anything poplar gets spat upon. The proof is in the pudding though.

Do you have reoccurring themes you write about?

SS: People closest to me, I’d imagine that on that list that numbers one through five would say, kind of a social philosopher type of situation. I’m very hard on myself, unfortunately; it tends to make it that I’m hard on everybody else around me, it’s something I’m constantly keeping in check. Lately when it comes to what we’re doing with Suggs and in the future, it would be this route of just taking a look at myself and the world and seeing what’s going on, that’s where I get a large portion of the topics I talk about. There’s such a huge space right now for artists to express themselves in a time where expression is being manicured. I think we’re on the front period. Artistry in the world is on the brink of coming back to a place of rediscovering what it means to be punk. Punk to me demonstrates… if there’s one genre I had to pick that is the most honest… metal and punk is white people’s rap [laughs]. The reason I say that is that it’s true, it’s visceral, it’s hard and it’s hardcore. Hip-hop and punk have very similar trajectories as far as where they were and where they are now. It’s high time for us to get back to where we were.

Both are about community and DIY.

SS: Definitely. It’s so true. It’s the raw energy and frustration being expressed in real time—that’s awesome! We need more of it.

Did you learn anything about yourself writing the We Suggs record?

SS: I rediscovered the sense of purpose and how it is intrinsically connected to creation and intuition. We all try to force stuff at times and make something happen because we think it should happen and it’s what we want to happen but, what I’ve rediscovered through this process is the things that truly effected my trajectory were things that were beyond my control; what was under my control was my choice and my action and whether or not I acted in the moment or let it pass.

You mentioned before that you’re not religious; are you spiritual?

SS: I don’t want to prescribe to being religious or spiritual. The reason is because both have connotations that are not true. Alluding to it in ‘Thank Christ’ is religion has got a bad rap as has spirituality. I’m a child of God and I’m not afraid to say it, I’m proud in fact but, that also has connotations as well… to explain that would be to explain that in my personal view, the most practical way of explaining God is logic, love logic, I’ll put it like that. That being said I operate in a way that that is void of myself; what would be the best decision? What would be the best way to react by virtue as opposed to how I feel? I’m not a religious or spiritual person—I’m myself and a child of God.

Are there any books you’ve read that have meant a lot to you?

SS: I will say this, because I’m not afraid… It’s so crazy that I even have to feel I have to be careful when it comes to these topics of God and truth, it’s crazy because I know how people are going to react… that’s why I had that whole spiel about connotations of religion and spirituality, you’ll get damned either way. What I’m trying to get forth here is the book A Course in Miracles [by Helen Schucman], once I read that, it put me on the path of a very, very, very preliminary path of understanding that it’s not my fault but, now that I know that it is on me so to speak, how I express myself and deal with internal trauma, all that stuff, A Course in Miracles was invaluable. It can lull you into an idea that thinking everything is a flower [laughs] but everything is not a flower! As a whole though it’s done wonders for me dealing with how to navigate blame and what to do after the pain.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

SS: Zak and I have a new EP coming out. It’s going to be called Who Hurt You? We’re approaching the end of it. We’re excited about it! We’re seizing the opportunity of seeing what’s out there in the world and responding to it.

Please check out: SUGGS on bandcamp; on Instagram.

Naarm/Melbourne musician Nicole Thibault: “It’s good to feel real moments of sadness so you can appreciate the good things that happen”

Original photo: Jamie Wdziekonski. Handmade collage by B.

Thibault is a new indie-pop outfit from Naarm/Melbourne created by Nicole Thibault featuring contributions from Zak Olsen (ORB, Traffik Island), Rebecca Liston (Parsnip), Lachlan Denton (The Ocean Party) as well as Julian Patterson (from Nicole’s previous band, Minimum Chips). They’re getting set to release their debut album Or Not Thibault, a collection of songs straight from the heart, that are as beautiful, mysterious and eerie as the surroundings in which they recorded, near Hanging Rock; a spot made famous by the 1967 historic mystery novel by Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Gimmie caught up with Nicole last week to explore the writing and recording of the album.

The black and white cover image on your record Or No Thibault is really beautiful; what inspired it?

NICOLE THIBAULT: It’s Hanging Rock! You can look at it from where we recorded the album up at Mount Macedon in Victoria. James Cecil recorded it in an old school. It’s a beautiful, spooky part of the world, it’s covered in clouds half the time. I think there’s one part of the mountain that doesn’t see the sun. We had this idea, it was a group effort, of cutting out letters hiding behind rocks, just the letters poking up. We climbed up to the top and hand a play around. Jamie Wdziekonski took the photos, he came out for the day, it was a really good vibe. He did some studio photos and we all went up to Hanging Rock, none of us disappeared! [laughs]. It’s a very eerie place.

Cover: Jamie Wdziekonski.

Did the environment inspire the sound of the record?

NT: Yeah. The actual studio is an 1800-1900’s school, that’s spooky enough in itself. There’s photos of all of the little children, which was eerie, but also quite beautiful. It’s surrounded by tall trees. Being away from the city is really, really nice. James has made it his own, he’s leasing it through the Council but he’s made it really homely. I stayed there at night a few times. It’s really just a nice place to be, that definitely had an influence. Time stands still somewhat, it’s a really dreamy kind of place.

You didn’t encounter any ghosts while there?

NT: I was ready for it! [laughs]. I stayed over night on my own twice, one time in a bell tent, and it was very Blair Witch! Not that I’ve seen the movie but, I’ve seen the trailers and was too scared to watch it. I was like, this is how I’m going to go, this is how I’m going to die! [laughs]. It was really fun.

James used to live in France for a little bit so he’d make us crepes and we were very, very spoiled. He makes really good coffee. It was five-star treatment for sure! It was really, really fun! It took about a year to make. I’d go out once every few weeks and James would fit me in between his other, more professional customers [laughs].

That sounds amazing! You’ve made music since the ‘90s and I know you took time off to raise a family; how did it feel coming back to music?

NT: It felt really good! I think I can’t not make music. I think I really committed myself to raise a couple of children and I was like; this is it now, this is what I do, I’m not Kim Gordon and I don’t have a team of people to look after my child while I stay up and party on to 4am. I have to become an adult and snap out of it. I separated from the father of my children and that was the best thing that ever happened to me [laughs]. Can I say that?

You sure can!

NT: I didn’t really have any family support, like grandparents or anything, so it was just 24/7 child looking after… which I’m not complaining about, but it’s good now because I have a little bit of time to myself ‘cause there’s shared parenting duties. I wish I had done it sooner!

Why did you feel it was time to create this new musical project, Thibault?

NT: I got encouragement from a friend of mine. I started playing solo, I had some songs that I had been twiddling around with. I hadn’t played live for a while but I always had fiddled around with some songs. I did a few solo shows but they weren’t great, let’s just be honest, they weren’t great. A friend of mine was like “let’s start a band; do you want some people to play with?” It went from there. I got people offering to play with me, I’m so lucky that they did!

Did you have a vision for how you wanted this project to sound?

NT: No. Am I meant to? It just kind of happened. I listen to music all day every day and I listen to the radio… it just goes in and it’s got to come out somewhere sounding like something. It sounds like what was inside me.

How did you first discover music?

NT: I was actually born in Tamworth and my mum had a piano, my sister was getting music lessons and I wasn’t really interested in it, but one day I walked up to the piano and could play the Mickey Mouse March by ear! I thought, this is fun! I started playing the trombone in high school because it was the only instrument left that no one wanted to play, it was that or nothing, so I played it. I wasn’t amazing at it but I went to university for a couple of years and studied it. I wasn’t really good at university either. I made some friends and I joined the band Clag. I met Julian Patterson at uni, he was studying architecture and then we started Minimum Chips. We all had a bit of a classical music background but we were more into My Bloody Valentine and The Cure [laughs]. I remember having a cassette of The Cure and being like, oh my god, this is amazing! We thought we were underground [laughs].

You mentioned that you went out to recorded bits and pieces of the record when you could; what about the writing for the album? Did it take a while to get this collection of songs?

NT: I think so. I didn’t sit down and go studiously, I’m going to write a song now! It was little ideas and then we were playing them live for a little bit. They had the structure, the melodies, all the parts and then taking them to James’ studio is where the magic happened; he had this array of old synthesizers and organs, a beautiful piano. We let the songs be free. We added layers upon layers. They evolved that way. I write very melodic songs, on their own they might not sound so great but when everyone came in, Zak came in with his guitar and he played a ‘60s twelve string; everyone was such great musicians. Julian Patterson played bass on the album and came up with all the melodies. Lachlan Denton played all the drums, he made all of the songs a hundred times better. It was a lot of experimenting—we thought we were The Beach Boys [laughs]. It was very free-form.

Photo: Jamie Wdziekonski.

A while back there was a post on your social media and you commented: we wanted to reassure you that we recorded a fair bit of tambourine on the record.

NT: Yeah! [laughs]. Tambourine is something that you either love it or hate it. It’s always too loud but sometimes it can be amazing. It’s such a contentious instrument [laughs].I just didn’t want to be too serious. It’s hard to play, it’s so hard to make it sound in time.

One of my favourite songs on the album is “Continuer” it’s very cinematic.

NT: Yes! I’ll let you in on a little secret, it used to be called “Morricone” as in Ennio Morricone [the Italian composer known for his movie scores]. He recently passed away. I’ve always been a fan, as is probably everyone on the planet. I came up with melody and we just went to town and went hard, and didn’t want to pretend we weren’t ripping of Morricone. It’s definitely meant to be cinematic and atmospheric and inspired by one of my heroes. I’m glad you like that one. It’s hard to play live. It’s such a slow song. The recording really captured a slow and moody piece of music. It’s hard to play it in front of people, I think fast songs are easier to play. You kind of need the Philharmonic Orchestra behind you to play it [laughs]. We ended up going, nah, we’re not playing that live anymore. I’m glad it’s on the album. I got everyone to sing on it.

Is there a song on the album that was hard for you to write?

NT: Yeah, all of them! [laughs]. Sometimes I‘d be having a pretty bad day and stupid stuff would happen and I’d be like, ahhh geez! I have to drive up to Mount Macedon. I’d be trying to keep it together. I’d be singing these lyrics, which are very personal and I’d written about something specific, I’d have to go on walks and gather myself. Some of them were hard to sing and play. Because James is a friend, we’re even better friends now, he’d just be like, “Go for a walk and then come back and do it.” It’s so good that you can actually walk through a forest, it was a nice place to have lots of meltdowns! [laughs].

Awww.

NT: In a good way though! I feel things and we didn’t shy away from it, let’s just put it that way. It’s all good. It’s really good to get over those… some were hard but it’s good to get over it and have done it!

Yeah. Kind of like that saying: sometimes you have to breakdown to breakthrough.

NT: Definitely! To not be afraid of mistakes too and to learn from them.

One of my favourite things about the album is your vocals, it’s really emotional; what did you do to tap into that?

NT: [Laughs] You don’t want to know! Being alive on this planet! Stuff happens to you. A person got me to sing some harmonies on their album and I couldn’t hit the high notes anymore… I think my voice has just lived. Your voice has to go through everything you do, and you can just hear it. We didn’t want to make it perfect and polished. We wanted to leave the emotion in it, I wanted it to just be from the heart.

When I first heard it, I was like, I just want to give this person a hug!

NT: A lot of my friends told me they cried when listening to it; why do you write such sad songs? I’m like, sorry! [laughs]. It’s good to cry. It’s good to have a time out, the world is not always a happy place… sometimes it is though! It’s good to feel real moments of sadness so you can appreciate the good things that happen.

Do you have a favourite piece of equipment you used for the recording?

NT: I reckon the Hammond organ, it had all these beautiful shimmery sounds. There was an old Yamaha organ and the piano James had was really beautiful. He had a few synths but I didn’t know how to play them so he played them. There was a little percussion instrument too that went “dooooiiiiig”.

The album is called Or Not Thibault; is that a play on words from Shakespeare?

NT: Yes, it is! I think Julian Patterson thought of it, it was a kind of tongue-in-cheek joke. I don’t want to take myself too seriously.

How is making music now fun and exciting for you compared to how you used to do things?

NT: I’ve just gotten over myself. I’ve run out of fucks to give. I don’t care what people think of me anymore. I believe in myself a little bit more. I’m around really supportive, positive people… I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced that [laughs]. This is nice. It’s really fun, so fun! I’m so lucky to have really beautiful, talented people playing music with me who aren’t just megalomaniacs from hell. It’s a good vibe now.

It sounds like you’re starting a whole new chapter!

NT: It is. It’s really nice to have this going on. I’m so glad we did it last year because I’m just sitting starring at walls now. I’m just like, oh my god, I’m so happy I achieved this album because I’m not very good in this pandemic, I haven’t been very inspired or productive. Some people are able to do things but I’m not one of those people…

And that’s totally OK.

NT: Yeah, you’re right. You just have to try and get through. It’s pretty bad down here. I haven’t seen anyone for so long, we can’t leave our houses. It’s pretty grim. Hopefully at the end of it everyone will appreciate everything so much more. I spend a lot of time by myself, I don’t have housemates or anything. I am getting myself some gear and teaching myself to record at home, that’s good and positive! I just have to do it.

Please check out THIBAULT. Thibault on Instagram. Or Not Thibault out September 4 on CHAPTER MUSIC.

Traffik Island, ORB and Hierophants’ Zak Olsen: “If it’s not memorable, it’s just not going to have a connection with anyone”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Melbourne-based musician Zak Olsen is one of those musical wizards. He has a natural talent for songwriting, doesn’t tie himself to one genre, and somehow magically has a knack for them all. He works his magic in heavy psych power-trio ORB, with new wavers Hierophants and as Traffik Island, a project that jumps style from one album to the next. He’s one of our favourite songwriters. We spoke with him last week to get an insight into his world.

ZAK OLSEN: I’m just at the studio right now, saying studio is a bit of a stretch but, I have a room that’s not my house that has some of my music gear in it [laughs]. It’s really close to my house so I just come here most days. I spend all day and all night in here usually.

Where did you grow up?

ZO: I grew up in New Zealand, I grew up in a few places because we moved every year. I mainly grew up on farms in New Zealand and moved to Australia in the year 2000.

What were you like growing up?

ZO: Most of my youth I grew up on a farm, which was really good. My parents had that school of parenting where they just let you go and make your own mistakes. We had lots of space which was good, my dad would say “Just go and do whatever you want just be back before its dark”. I spent heaps of time outside by myself when I was younger. My dad also played in a few heavy metal bands so he would always have huge parties and there’d be all these metalheads around. That was the first music that I got into when I was really young, like five years old. Its’ pretty appealing to a five year old. My dad would have all these heavy metal VHS tapes, I particularly remember the Megadeath one! I loved it so much.

How did you discover music for yourself?

ZO: I’ve always had an interest in it because my dad did. In high school I heard the Sex Pistols and had one of those light bulb moments! Megadeth also did a Sex Pistols’ cover. I remember watching SBS one night and the Sex Pistols being on there and they played ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and I remember the Megadeth song of it from back when I was a kid and it sort of all came back around again. I got into it from there, I decided that I wanted to play guitar and that was that.

Why is music important to you?

ZO: Just the actual act of making it, is the most fun I could ever have. Once it’s made it’s never quite as good, I still love playing live and all that stuff but for me personally the most fun that I can have in music is writing things—making noises! [laughs].

Is there a particular album or albums that’s helped shape your ideas on music?

ZO: Yes. Besides the obvious stuff like ‘60s pop – I got really into that in high school – just the simple things that are catchy that still have an effect that aren’t intimidating; stuff that involves everyone, simple music like The Beatles and The Kinks. That stuff is always with me. I remember the first time I heard R. Stevie Moore, that was a big influence because he didn’t stick to any genre. I know a lot of people claim they don’t stick to one genre but he really, really pushed that, he really went for it. I remember seeing an interview with him and he said that you can just make any noise, it’s still a song, not every song has to be your magnum opus. That allowed me to open up and make any noise.

I really like with him too that people go “you’re the king of lo-fi!” and he tells them something like “It doesn’t matter if it’s lo-fi or hi-fi or whatever-fi, I’m DIY-fi”.

ZO: Yeah, exactly! I’m definitely not going for a lo-fi thing, it’s just out of necessity. If I could make big grand exotica Martin Denny kind of albums I would. I don’t have that kind of money or resources though [laughs].

How did you first start making music yourself? You were in The Frowning Clouds; were you making stuff before that?

ZO: Nah, no. I was barely playing guitar before that, we just decided to start a band. I couldn’t really play at the time, we learnt as we went. I was a really slow learner with music but we all just kept going and here we are [laughs]. I’m still a slow learner!

When you make music then, is it mostly through feeling and intuition for you?

ZO: Absolutely. I don’t read music or know any of that kind of stuff. It’s 100% intuition for me.

The first Traffik Island LP Nature Strip that you put out – I know there was a split tape before that too – sounded kind of Beatles-y and Kinks-y and a little Bonzo Dog Band-ish and Syd Barrett-esque now with your new release Sweat Kollecta’s Peanut Butter Traffik Jam it’s kind of like a DJ Shadow beat tape, they’re such different sounds…

ZO: It goes back to the doing different things like R. Stevie Moore doing whatever you want. I wanted to do that to the max! I just wanted to make something as different from the first one. I was worried about it once it was made and I thought, oh shit, people that liked the first one probably aren’t going to like the new one. Nature Strip is the album that I always wanted to make ever since I was really young, being an obvious Syd Barrett fan, I just wanted to make an album on an acoustic guitar—that was the mission statement.

For the next one I wanted to do the total opposite and make it more computer-based and not write anything before; every one of those songs are made up just as I’m making it, it wasn’t prewritten.

So when you play them live you’ll have to teach yourself how to play them again?

ZO: Well, yeah. The band haven’t learnt any of those live yet, whether I’ll play them in front of an audience is yet to be seen [laughs].

I really hope you do!

ZO: There’s so many ways to do it that I’m just not sure yet. Hopefully one day… if venues open up again!

I really liked the Button Pusher live stream you did the other night!

ZO: Yeah, that was a test of maybe how we can do it live.

Dude, that test went really well, we super impressed. Just how you walked into the room rolled the tape machine and then started playing was so cool! The lighting and mood really added to it all too.

ZO: That’s good! That’s something I’m working on with a couple of other people at the studio too, we’ve started a YouTube channel live stream for performances and sorts of things. We have a few more coming up soon.

On your first release the split tape Sleepy Head/Traffic Island I noticed there’s Hierophants and Sweat Kollecta’s songs on that from back in 2012.

ZO: Yeah, my friend Danny who ran that label Moontown was doing a split with Nick, another Frowning Clouds member, he was doing the A-side. Danny called me asked me if I had any demos laying around to fill up the B-side of the tape. I said, yes, but I didn’t have any at the time. Lucky it was around the time I heard R. Stevie Moore so I had a real jolt of inspiration and just went out the back for two weeks and did all those songs for the tape. Some of them ended up going into Frowning Clouds or Hierophants after the fact.

I really love Hierophants! Spitting Out Moonlight was one of our favourite LPs of last year! We’re big fans of your other releases last year too, it’s so cool when you can find an artist that makes such different things but they’re all incredible. That’s not an easy thing to pull off.

ZO: That’s nice to hear. Thank you. It all has to do with collaboration with people and letting things just happen the way they do between people. You’re not really pushing an aesthetic or an agenda when you’re collaborating, that’s hopefully when more interesting things come out. I think Hierophants lean into that, we purposely do things that maybe sound ugly or we think we shouldn’t do. That’s the most collaborative band, especially in the sense that no idea gets rejected, we do everything. It’s really warts and all, sometimes good, sometimes bad [laughs].

I wanted to ask you about the Hierophants song ‘Everything In Order’; what inspired that one?

ZO: That was nearly going to be a Traffik Island song. That was inspired by, I broke my arm quite badly and had surgery. I spent a couple of weeks doing demos one-handed, that song was one of the one-handed songs [laughs]. Jake [Robertson] heard it and asked if Hierophants could do it. I was trying to do a show tune-y kind of thing [laughs]. Someone told me that the hook is the same from a song from a Disney movie [laughs]. I was trying to do something Robyn Hitchcock-y, when he does these ridiculous sounding show tunes.

I love the lyrics in it: you don’t need friendship anyway / you don’t need family anyway.

ZO: [Laughs] Don’t quote me on that one, it’s a character who is wrong, because you do need family and friends.

What about the song ‘Limousine’?

ZO: It’s about the obvious, but the funny thing about it is that I think I subconsciously took that from watching a Paul Simon interview. He was on the Dick Cavett Show from back in the ‘70s and he was talking about writing a song about someone that’s trapped by fame and they’re riding around in their limousine. Subconsciously years down the track I just wrote that! I re-watched that interview recently and realised I took it [laughs]. The song is original, I promise! The seed of the song maybe I took from Paul Simon.

Do you have a favourite track on the new Traffik Island Sweat Kollecta’s LP?

ZO: I like ‘Rubber Stamps’ it’s the least beats/DJ Shadow-y one. It’s a short instrumental, sort of exotica, ‘60s kind of sounding, crappy Beach Boys instrumental one. It came out the easiest.

I notice though different lyrics or song titles there’s a humour and lightness to your music.

ZO: Humour is always good, it takes the edge off. Frank Zappa had a humorous side or Devo did too, they had a real sense of humour and both had been big influences on me. It’s not too conscious for me. It is a bit easier if you put a sense of humour on things, it’s easier to put it out into the world because… I’m kind of lost for words…

Because it’s too personal? And you’re not overtly putting yourself out there?

ZO: Yeah. I think if people put irony in their music it protects them from criticism. People don’t criticise things, they just say that I’m being ironic. That’s not why I’m trying to be funny in the songs though, I guess it just makes it more enjoyable. I don’t think anyone wants to be yelled at [laughs].

I wanted to ask you about one of my favourite ORB songs, ‘Space Between The Planets’…

ZO: Oh nice! That’s mainly Daff’s song, it took us ages to do that one, we got a bit lost in the riffage [laughs]. It turned out well in the end. There’s no secret with the ORB songs, everyone brings riffs and we smash ‘em together and hope they turn out good—it’s that boneheaded! [laughs].

It’s fun to have that too.

ZO: Yeah, the goal was just to have a fun band and just turn it up! We wanted to make it fun live and be nice and loud, because a lot of our stuff was never like that.

Do you write every day?

ZO: Yeah, in some sense. I haven’t done any acoustic guitar writing in ages. I come to the studio every day I can. I make noises in some sense but I’m not like Randy Newman on the piano every day, as much as I wish I was!

Do you have a particular way you go about writing songs?

ZO: At the moment, because I’m working on remixes and I’m trying to do a hip-hop thing with a friend from America, all the stuff is very beat-based. I’ll start that by just finding cool drum loops. It’s totally different from writing song songs on the guitar, proper songs I guess, is that I usually try to hum a melody first in the shower or something, the catchiest bit, the bit everyone usually remembers about the song. If I can come up with a line or a chorus without any instruments first and then I’ll go to the guitar or the piano and work out what the chords are and go from there. That usually works.

Where did your interest in hip-hop come from?

ZO: It’s always been a faint interest. I grew up skateboarding so there’s lots of great songs in skateboarding videos…

Like A Tribe Called Quest!

ZO: Yeah, heaps of that and even stuff like DJ Shadow. A lot of new release hip-hop came out last year that I really liked.

What kind of stuff?

ZO: Quelle Chris had this album called Guns. There’s another guy I like too called Billy Woods he did an album called Hiding Places. They don’t give into the tropes of hip-hop and the beats are a lot weirder, psychedelic is the only way that I could describe it. There’s FX on the vocals and lots of echo. It’s not focusing on the tropes of gangsta stuff, they’re not rapping about cash or cars, it’s more introverted and weird. It kicked off my interest in it more. Obviously things like Madlib and MF Doom; I was late to the MF Doom thing but when I got into it, it was all I listened to for a year.

I love his Danger Doom project and the song ‘Benzie Box’ is an all-time favourite.

ZO: Hell yeah!

My brother and I owned a skateboard shop in the late ‘90s, he had one in the ‘80s too, and I loved all the skate vids with the hip-hop and punk soundtracks.

ZO: That’s cool. It’s such a good way to get into stuff. I’m very thankful for all those movies they really got me into stuff that I still listen to now.

Do you have a song of yours that stands out as one of the quickest ones to write?

ZO: ‘Looking Up’ it’s a song on Nature Strip. I never write songs in one sitting but that one was written in an hour, the whole thing; that’s never ever happened to me before. I said, ok, I’m going to sit down and write a song and then that came out really quickly.

What do you find challenging about songwriting?

ZO: Trying to be too tricky! It’s really a problem that you can get lost in that. I’ve been trying to make songs for around ten years now and you think that progressing with songwriting, you should have more complex melodies and complex chords, but it’s not necessarily the case. You have to try to remind yourself of that all of the time. There’s been times where I try to make the craziest song that I can and have weird chords and a fancy melody but it just turns out shit! If it’s not memorable, it’s just not going to have a connection with anyone. Instinct and when it comes out naturally and quickly, that usually resonates with people more and is more memorable.

When you’re working on things and they’re not working do you try and push through that or do you give up and move on to something else?

ZO: Usually I move on to something else. Sometimes I do just sit there banging my head against the wall for aaaaaages! That never works usually.

Is there anything you do in those times like go for a walk or something?

ZO: I should! [laughs]. But, nah. I really fucking just try to get something out of it. The only other thing that does work is before I go to sleep, when I’m lying in bed; that’s usually the best time for it. You’ll be thinking about your songs and that’s usually when things happen.

Do you think it’s because you’re more relaxed?

ZO: It must be, it has to be.

Do you do anything else creative outside of music?

ZO: Not really. I do some painting every now and then. My dad is a really good drawer and tattoo artist, so I kind of did that before I was doing music. I used to make poems all the time as a kid and that turned into songs. Making music is my main creative outlet, unless you count cooking! I try and cook more frequently now. My girlfriend is a really good cook.

What’s one of your favourite things to cook?

ZO: Lately I’ve just been going for all the different kinds of roasts and trying to master each one [laughs]. Cooking is just really good in general though, especially if you put aside the whole night and take your time. I love doing that!

I love cooking too, I find it really relaxing.

ZO: Yeah, totally.

You mentioned before that you’re working a hip-hop project; are you working on anything else?

ZO: I’m just trying to collaborate as much as I can this year. Because of the situation in the world right now, a lot of my friends that make music are staying inside right now and we’re all just sending music between each other right now and making things together. I was starting another Traffik Island one but I just ended up sending all of those ideas to friends to put stuff over the top. I’m working on things right now but I don’t know exactly what it is right now. I definitely just want to get into doing more collaborative stuff.

Why do you like working collaboratively so much?

ZO: Them bringing something to it that I could never possibly conceive. Just them adding something to it, some of my friends can come up with melodies that I would never imagine! Some people are just better at certain things.

What’s a song you’ve collaborated on that you were totally surprised where someone took it?

ZO: The first song on Peanut Butter… [Bits and Peace (Bullant Remix)] it was remixed by my friend Joe [Walker]. That one is basically the only song on the record made up of samples. I played some of my favourite records into my computer and gave him all the bits, they weren’t in time or anything like that and I told him to make a song out of all those noises—he sent me that! Impressed.

The film clip for your song ‘Ulla Dulla’ is pretty fun.

ZO: My friend John [Angus Stewart] made that, I know everyone says their friend is talented but, he IS insanely talented. He did some other clips, some King Gizzard [And The Lizard Wizard] ones. He asked me if he could make a clip for me. I said, sure. We wanted to try to really go above and beyond and to really try and push through the boundary. We did the clip and it was so tiring, we started at midday and I got home at one in the morning. We were driving all around the city, I think only two or three locations made it into the final clip but there was six. I had to do that dance to that song hundreds of times, I reckon [laughs]. Then it sat around for a couple of months because the album got pushed and of course in that time I started freaking out about it and got real paranoid. I was just so scared of being so open and vulnerable like that. I saw him at a party a few weeks before it came out and went up to him and told him that I don’t think I could go through with the video. He was not having a bar of it. He was like, “Don’t give me that stoner bullshit! It’s coming out.” [laughs].

What was it about it that made you freak out?

ZO: It was just so much of me! I didn’t want it to be The Zak Olsen Show… that kind of shot started getting to me. In the end I’m glad it came out. It definitely elevates the song a bit more. I’m really glad.

You did a lot of touring with ORB last year, right?

ZO: We did an Australian tour with Thee Oh Sees, then we went to America and Europe, so lots of moving around.

How do you find travelling so much?

ZO: Personally, I love it. There’s this weird thing about touring this feeling that… where people can feel like bands are running from responsibility… we were touring with King Gizzard and those guys work, it’s like seven James Browns! …it’s not the case with them, they work way harder than any other band I’ve ever met! If you’re into the second month of touring and you haven’t really made much and there’s not much time to make songs you can kind of get in a weird limbo mode where you think; what am I doing every day? I’m just playing the same songs!

It’s sort of like the movie Groundhog Day?

ZO: Yeah. But it’s still better than any other job you could have. You have to be careful of getting into the bad habits of drinking every day and eating shit food all the time.

Where do you get your hard work ethic from?

ZO: Probably my dad, he’s a little bit of a hard arse [laughs]. I can’t stand the feeling of not thinking I’m doing enough or giving enough. Having said that though, I do love staying in bed all day on Sunday! For me the guilt of not doing enough is way worse than just getting up and doing it.

Please check out: Traffik Island. ORB. Hierophants. @traffik_islanda on Instagram. Button Pusher.