For a week in September, Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley becomes the focal point for the Australian music industry as the BIGSOUND Festival kicks off. Hundreds of industry members, punters and musicians assemble to see the next wave of acts perform live across several official and unofficial showcase performances.
Weirdo Wasteland, in conjunction with photographer Jeff Andersen Jnr. and Jet Black Cat Music, put a call out to some BIGSOUND artists we admire to enlist them for a series of portraits taken at Bloodhound Bar throughout the week.
The latest in the series is Sydney’s Sunscreen. The band came up to Brisbane to play a series of sideshows throughout the week, and we took the opportunity to chat to Sunscreen members Sarah Sykes and Alexander McDonald about the band’s beginnings and a forthcoming EP. Check out the chat and gallery below.
First things first – tell me how Sunscreen originally began!
Alex: Sunscreen began with Sarah showing me some songs she had written. We began meeting up every week and playing in her garage in Newtown. Before that we had just been people who hung out at parties and shows. Our drummer Hugo quickly became involved and we took it from there.
Sarah: Sunscreen began one day when I invited Alex and Hugo over for a jam about two years ago. Though at first we had no plans of starting a band, and we definitely didn’t know it was going to be called Sunscreen. We just wanted to see what we could come up with. I showed the boys a few of my songs that I hadn’t shown anyone else due to nerves, and we took it from there. About six months later we played our first gig, and about six months ago our bass player Jett joined.
When would you say it became a fully formed project in its own right?
Alex: When we started coming up with songs in that sweaty garage. We’ve just been rolling on from that ever since.
Sarah: For me, it was when we recorded our first song ‘Now I’ve Got Your Heart’. And shortly after that, when we got our first 20 minute set together, and played our first gig. It was for about 15 people at 3:00 pm in the afternoon, opening up a stage at Sydney’s King St Crawl.
Over time what has Sunscreen become an outlet for emotionally and creatively?
Sarah: The project has become an outlet for our emotions, period. Or at least mine. What we feel, whether it be frustration or excitement, happiness or sadness, translates into the musical ideas we have, as dramatic as that sounds.
Having a jam once a week also acts as a kind of therapy for all four of us, I think. It calms us down from whatever else might be going on in our lives. It’s really cool to combine our ideas, and we always surprise ourselves with what we can come up with all together. The addition of Jett has been awesome too, as it brought such fresh vibes to the table. When she first joined, of course she had to just learn the songs we’d already written. But now we’re writing things with her as well, and she’s bringing some songs to the band as well, which are great. It’s exciting.
In terms of the sound you’ve cultivated, are there any inspirational touches that have textured your music?
Sarah: Absolutely. I’ve always been really inspired by PJ Harvey her her powerful, yet figuratively simple songwriting and for her artistic bravery. The rawness and emotiveness of her earlier albums like Dry and Rid Of Me didn’t only inspire my songwriting, but also taught me to not be afraid of being emotional. I’ve always felt that women are conditioned to be hyper aware of not coming across as too emotional, so when artists like PJ Harvey are totally unapologetic about the emotions they feel – about darkness and angst – and loss and love, things like that, it really speaks to me on that level. I’ve also been hugely musically inspired by Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins for her unique melodies and the chances she took musically. The way her songwriting brain is wired is something that’s so fascinating to me.
I know Alex is inspired by a lot of Australian music like The Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly, Midnight Oil and The Triffids, and I feel like that reflects through when you listen to our music and in particular his guitar playing. Alex has gotten me into a lot of ‘80s bands lately like The Sound, and I feel like they have influenced the songs we write together. We all take influence from different things. Jett grew up listening to punk bands like The Clash. Hugo has introduced me to a bunch of old rock ‘n’ roll like Led Zeppelin. It all contributes to the the textures of the songs we write together.
As a band we go through phases of being obsessed with other bands… it’s really fun, albeit a little creepy. We’ll listen to albums together when driving in the car. You can’t help but be influenced by what’s going on around you. Bands we play shows with with really inspire and affect us. Our current obsessions include Gold Class and The Ocean Party, both whom we’ve supported (though shhh, don’t tell them how much we love them!)
I hear you’ve got an EP in the works – what sort of topics and concepts have shaped that batch of songs?
Sarah: Yep! The EP is coming out on the 10th November, as a split release between Spunk Records and Dinosaur City Records. The split is something we’re so happy about.
The EP is a collection of songs that reflect our early beginnings as a band. ‘Tide’ – the first track off the EP that we’re releasing as a single next week – is the first instance of Alex and I co-writing a song together. The lyrics to most of the songs on the EP were written over a year and a half ago – they’re about things and romantic affairs that seem like a million miles away from where my life is today. The songs on the EP work together as a collection, however we also chose them to keep things chronological, so now we can focus on making the album with the new songs we’ve been writing since. So we’re very relieved it’s finally coming out!
Lyrically, most of the songs are about romantic confusion, if we’re going to categorise them. Though we have one song on the EP called ‘For My Brother’ that is about losing a friend. The EP is a lot darker than ‘Voices’, and I think that’s obvious.
What are some of the things fans are responding to most about Sunscreen’s work?
Sarah: Hugo’s mullet. He has amazing hair. Sorry, now for a serious response! People seem to really enjoy our songwriting, which in turn gives us a really nice feeling. Lately people have come up to me after gigs and told me they’ve had one of the songs we play live stuck in their head. Which gives me confidence about the EP we’re releasing next month, because the song is on it! One of our favourite audience comments was in Wollongong when this guy said he loved Alex’s ‘tasty licks’.
I also get a lot of females telling me it makes them feel happy to see two girls on stage. Which is a huge deal, still, sadly. I grew up in a town where I had next to no female role models in the local live music scene, so it really means a lot to me to know that Jett and I might be inspiring other women to get on a stage with an instrument.
Until BIGSOUND you hadn’t played many gigs outside of Sydney. How do you all feel as a live unit now?
Alex: We feel very confident coming out from the shows we did in Brisbane. Playing lots of shows over the four days we were up there really gave us a boost.
Sarah: The BIGSOUND week was really good for us. From my experience in other bands, sometimes I think you get better at touring in the same way that you can run for a longer distance if you do fitness training. It was good for our stamina to play five shows in four days, in the crazy, busy BISGOUND atmosphere. We definitely feel a lot tighter and a lot more calm about the process of rocking up to a show, and putting on a decent show even if you feel tired. Though I only speak for myself, everything is about practice for me, including nerve control.