Interview: GUNG HO


Words: James Frostick


Mike and Ollie of Gung Ho talk about their new EP, Anywhere Else, and what makes their brand of pop listenable.

I’m standing outside Sassafras in Paddington waiting for Michael McAlary from Gung Ho to arrive. It is a fucking hot day, like, a scorcher. I suppose it is pretty apt that this piece comes out in the middle of another heatwave, so hopefully it helps set the scene. We agreed on a 3pm interview at the local café but unbeknownst to us at the time, the place closes at 3.

Mike arrives and we decide to try another café across the road where we meet the second third of Gung Ho, Oliver Duncan. We settle in as best we can and Mike orders a $7 smoothie that underwhelms and disappoints; we are collectively kicking goals from the start. The guys were good sports through the whole thing and I thought the chat went pretty well despite the massive sweat patches that were slowly changing my shirt colour. Both Mike and Ollie were very open and honest about their band, Gung Ho, and what is in store in the imminent future.

Gung Ho have been around for a while, but they aren’t the type of band that is in your face all the time; they are more like the kind of band that people you take seriously, take seriously – if that makes sense.

Since they released their first single, ‘Twin Rays’, back in 2011, Mike, Ollie and drummer Gabe Webster (who also mans the skins for Teleprompter) have slowly built a strong following without actually producing a physical release.

Well, actually, that is soon about to change. The trio are set to release their first EP, Anywhere Else, followed by a national tour starting soon. Three singles from the EP have already hit the internet and radio airwaves. ‘Twin Rays’, ‘Side by Side’ and ‘Strangers’ have been earning some praise from Triple J, with high-rotation airplay contributing to the growing spotlight shining on the three musicians.

It’s not like this interest is new to them. Gung Ho have become a solid live performance machine thanks to some high-profile supports and a solid stream of praise from their peers, so they are accustomed to a certain degree of notoriety. However, they are interesting because aside from their 3 singles, they haven’t done a whole lot to cultivate this following compared to some of their contemporaries.

Their friendship circle includes members from other Brisbane bands like Millions and Dune Rats – so they know some of the ins and outs of the ‘biz’ already. These bands are doing pretty well for themselves, but don’t mistake Gung Ho for a) riding the coattails of mates or b) trying to cash in on a particular sound. Aside from some friendly competition, Mike and Ollie seem fairly committed to treading their own path and seeing where that leads them. So far the process has been pretty different, but is still starting to bear fruit of its own.

“I think we’ve all got our own styles,” says Mike. “It encourages friendly competition between each other.”

“No one wants to write a shitty song,” adds Ollie.

“No one wants to copy each other either,” says Mike, again. “We try to be different but at the same time, so is everyone really. You hear your friends put out a good song and it makes you want to put out a good song.”

So what sets Gung Ho apart, exactly? Well for a start they create more along the lines of pop music rather than rock n’ roll or thrashy punk. Their breezy and often dreamy sound is no less vibrant or resonant, but there isn’t as much abrasiveness or twang.

‘Twin Rays’, ‘Side By Side’ and ‘Strangers’ share the ethereal vocal element which cascades around crisp guitar work and punchy bass. It’s catchy, hook-laden stuff, but in a caressing way, not so much a grab and hold sort of way. It is music that is easy to lose yourself in – but more on that later.

Yeah. Maybe it’s best to just let the guys explain it.

“One thing is the fact that we are a three piece and that we’ve got a lot of dynamic in the distinct sounds that we make,” says Ollie. “My bass is usually pretty high up in the mix and that doesn’t really happen much. Mike doesn’t play with too much distortion whereas my bass has quite a bit of distortion on it, and now there is lighter vocals filling up the mid-section and quite full-on drums. That kind of meshing of styles makes for an interesting listen that our mates’ bands aren’t doing, I guess.”

“I think we try to do everything ourselves, recording, releasing independently as well,” adds Mike. “All of our friend’s bands go to studios and stuff to record whereas we have just stuck with how we have always done it, which is recording in our jam room or our bedroom. Our whole EP was done like that, all the drums were recorded at our rehearsal space, all the guitars done in my bedroom or in the house and the vocals in my bedroom too.”

I suppose it is worth emphasising that a lot of Gung Ho’s work follows a strict DIY process, but in not in a gritty, garage-y way, but in an isolationist bedroom-centric sphere. Ollie and Mike discussed the process behind the composition of their EP, which was recorded and mixed entirely on their own.

“We usually don’t jam out songs a whole lot, says Mike. “We sit in front of a computer and jam with each other to a drum loop. Then we can put down parts, listen to it back and say ‘I don’t like that very much, let’s do something more like this’ and the songs will take shape from that. ‘Twin Rays’ even had a couple of different choruses before we settled on the one we have. It is kind of like trial and error on almost every song.”

“For ‘Strangers’, Mike did the chords and the lyrics to that one and I just tweaked the bass on it,” says Ollie. “Some of the older tracks I had the bass down already, ‘Twin Rays’ started out like that and then ‘Side by Side’ kind of started out like that and then we built on and around it. Because we have quite distinct styles it is pretty much just working it until we blend. Keep on failing until we don’t, pretty much.”

It should also be mentioned at this point that Mike and Ollie are perfectionists, so the fact that they don’t use studios or face the constraints associated with them (time, money) is a huge plus for them. It also helps that Mike is an avid audio tech-head, with a strong passion for studio recording and mixing work and some experience under his belt. This is also not something that every band has at their disposal.

“Yeah, I mix all the tracks and record the tracks and stuff, so I am a fan of modern production techniques – the newer kind of sound, the newer stuff. I know Ollie has a much greater knowledge of older music, post-punk stuff.”

“I like to think that when writing the best songs, you gotta learn from the past, sort of,” says Ollie. “I’ve been having a massive binge on the Beach Boys lately, for example. If you try and sound too new it can sound derivative, like a lot of bands jump on a bandwagon and to be new and different you need to learn from it.”

“(Mike and I) are kind of introverted and dry. No arguments or anything. We have different styles as well, and like I guess it is kind of like painting with colours: you can make something different when you blend two things together.”

So perhaps the pursuit of perfection (or at least contentment) has contributed to the ‘delay’ for the release of their EP. They seem to be doing fine without any physical product – they have supported the likes of Wavves, Whitest Boy Alive and have earned spots at festivals and BIGSOUND – but I guess the plan all along was to put something out eventually, when Mike and Ollie were comfortable with their accumulated material.

But do they now run the risk of failing to capitalise on amassed goodwill because they left it this long? Is there now a pressure to deliver the goods, even though they’ve been delivering for a few years already? Is this physical release even that crucial to their continued success and evolution?

“We have never released anything physically,” says Mike. “It has been a long time coming. I feel like now, because we have waited it’s gotta be really good. People might have a high expectation purely because we have taken so long.”

“Now it is not as important as it used to be to put out a physical release, because if you think about how many people just download songs off blogs and stuff. I think it’s still awesome though, Triple J got behind us when we won the Harvest Comp, I think we got a lot of fans from that and we were signed for a while to Future Classic and they have quite a big blog. I think we do need to (release something) though, you have to build yourself as a band.”

“You gotta put down that flag, to look at what you’ve done and move forward,” says Oliie. “We haven’t done that yet, it has been a long time coming. It should have been Spring (2012) but the music industry shuts down over the summer so we have to wait.”

When the EP comes out, what will people hear? Well, essentially three fifths of the EP are listenable already, so there won’t be too many surprises here. That’s ok though, because if you enjoyed the three singles released so far, you will probably find the EP to be enjoyable. Personally, I love the songs I have heard; it’s hard not to get swept up in the wistful murmuring and washed out, almost nostalgic, vibe of the singles already released. What will newcomers get out of it, though?

“The EP is five pop songs I think, and they are all quite distinct – not all over the place, more like you can kind of see what we are getting at for the future,” explains Ollie. “It’s the first chapter I think, and the fact that we have people interested in us now I think is fucking cool, because I didn’t think we’d even get interest at this stage.”

“The three singles have all been songs about girls,” says Mike, with a bit of a grin. “Not any girls in particular, though.”

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to do that either,” says Ollie. “We just wanted to have a nice listening experience – because we just love pop music really and we want to write really nice pop songs that could be taken as classic and perhaps survive outside of 2012. It’s kind of hard to do that and not be derivative and fall by the wayside. In other songs we write about things other than girls, just about growing up. Being in your 20’s is really confusing. It is hard to nail down what exactly what you are thinking about. Girls are an easy thing to fall back on.”

I mentioned before that it is easy to lose yourself in a Gung Ho song. The heady melody and relatable material (at least, for a girl-crazy 20-something like me) allows for a perfect amount of daydreaming, of events real or imagined, envisioned thanks to the music that seems to allow and encourage dreamy fantasy. I think that was one of the desired results when Ollie and Mike were tooling around on the computer.

“Music that bypasses the brain and goes straight to your heart is the best music,” says Ollie. “Because you are listening to it to feel something, to take you out of your head – like an escape. That’s why I listen to music anyway, I like having a reality check of course but you try and bypass the brain. Dumb lyrics are ok sometimes as well if you are singing from the heart.”

Gung Ho have made something that could very well be listenable beyond 2013, but this is their first release after all, so the EP is not their final statement. All they know for sure is that they admittedly still have a lot of room to grow and develop further.

“We’re still trying to find out (our sound),” says Mike.

“I don’t think we are there yet, honestly,” adds Ollie. “We are still trying to find our sound. We got no idea. Even with the first EP, we were still trying to find our feet. The songs are good, but I reckon we aren’t there yet, which is exciting.”

It is exciting. 2013 is shaping up to be a big year for Mike, Ollie and Gabe, and the EP is just the first step.

So, maybe Gung Ho would fit as your summer soundtrack. Regardless of the heat of the day, Gung Ho manage to make things noticeably cooler. Even as I’m sweltering writing this, I know that if I put on a Gung Ho song the heat won’t seem as bad; for a little while, anyway.