Words: James Frostick
Artist image: Joe Brennan
California Girls, the moniker of dark-electro artist Gus McGrath, is inching closer to the release of his new LP Beat Boy. The record’s third single ‘Out The Door’ drops tomorrow, and we’re stoked to provide the first listen. Here Gus rips himself apart to the frenetic thump of the beat, searching for connection and company amidst the steaming heave of the dance-floor.
Few artists manage to craft club music as dense and emotionally heavy as Gus McGrath. The Canberra-born and now Sydney-based artist who creates and performs as California Girls charts the murky and strobe-lit terrain of life, love and dance clubs, documenting both the ecstatic release of shared movement and the crushing pressure of loneliness that is experienced at the heart of the rhythmic swell. The music of California Girls is best described as a relentless whirlwind, one contoured and coloured with impassioned humanity. Gus channels heartache, loneliness and lust into formidable EBM doof, eliding his emotional mindset, turning the dance-floor into a confessional and professing his heart’s unshielded desire to seething masses of bodies.
I think California Girls’ second album Beat Boy was supposed to be out around now, but since 2020 is a fucking train-wreck it got pushed back to August 21, which is fine. Better to delay until the time is right than to force it amidst chaos. Instead of the full record, Gus has dropped a third single from Beat Boy (following on from previous cuts ‘Give Me Everything’ and ‘Small Birds‘), kindly quenching the thirst of his fans who are parched after a six-month wait for new California Girls music. ‘Out The Door’ is the name of the track, and like the two tracks that have come before it’s a kaleidoscopic bombardment of sound that protects a vulnerable centre. I had a quick chat with Gus via email to get a sense of where ‘Out The Door’ came from what what we can expect of Beat Boy when it drops later this year …
To start, I’d love to know about the origins of Beat Boy. How long have these tracks been in the works?
It’s been really long in some ways and really quick in some other ways. Some songs have been kicking around since like 2017 I think, but I had a total gear change and approach to song writing last year, along with really getting serious with myself about making this album – so I kinda very drastically rewrote the old songs I use like adding heaps of new parts and totally tearing them apart. I really kinda properly readjusted those songs and wrote new ones as a cohesive album in a short period of 2 or 3 months on my off time from full-time work, so in that way they’re all really new. I was actually pretty lost with California Girls from the period after my first album Desire until I was seriously making this album. One song on Beat Boy (the track ‘Disorder’) is actually the first California Girls song I ever wrote, people who used to see me play early on in Canberra know it well, but I mutated it into this like frantic bubblegum euro-pop thing. I played the album to my mum cause she’s a big Cali Girls fan but she doesn’t like that one because she says it sounds like the Crazy Frog.
‘Out The Door’ is the third single from the record you’ve put out thus far – what’s the response to the previous output been like overall?
It’s been good! The other singles have been frantic to get out because I realised last minute that if I’m about to tour or something it’s nice to have new music out, so it was a bit of a rush job on those two. I’m excited about this one cause I’m actually organised and have the end in sight – like EVERYTHING is done and there’s a release date set! But it’s been so nice that people like the other songs, especially because I think they have different energies and are really different to the songs on Desire so I’m glad people are on board for the change!
‘Out The Door’ is a thumping track – a nice mix between propulsive sound buoying heart-on-sleeve tenderness. Can you share some details about the track’s origins and inspirations?
In a lot of ways this song feels like the perfect example of this album – where I tried to just make normal pop music – and it’s what I thought I was doing but I’m so hyperactive and get so excited that they always end up way more extreme then I realise or intend. Lyrically it was a similar thing where I was feeling quite hurt and kinda insecure in this romantic moment so I kinda wanted to make this pop song where I could inhabit this pop-star version of myself where I was like “I couldn’t give a shit about what’s happening, I’m having cool sexy times and I’m CONFIDENT”, so I think some of that anxiety leaks through into the turbo energy of the song. It definitely feels TURBO to me. I got this big sample pack of these mecha and alarm sounds from anime so I used a bunch of them because I like how metallic and digital they sounded. Also the idea of piloting a giant robot felt kinda similar to pretending to be this pop version of myself. I’m also obsessed with HTRK so I was really trying to channel Jonnine Standish and her really loaded but totally effortless sexuality, which probably doesn’t translate at all but I think its there for me.
On a similar note, I feel much of your work is laced with intensely personal sentiments. It’s as if creating dance music offers not just an outlet for a physical release but also an emotional one. Can you divulge any of the inspirations behind the lyrical content / what you’re trying to communicate on this record as a whole?
I think when I make anything “creative” it’s really important to me that it’s not just throw away and I don’t want to be lazy with it, so I kinda strong-arm myself into being very earnest or emotionally invested cause it means I can’t really just throw it away, if that makes sense? I’m also just a VERY emotional person and I am bad at keeping emotion in so I think it’s a natural default for me to be emotionally open, like I really resonate with that meme of that teenage boy who’s trying not to speak but that vein on his head looks like its gonna burst. That’s me trying to not talk about my feelings. Obviously in a very respectful way though! God I sound so turbo. I think with Desire though it was so specifically about this relationship I was in that was not great, and I used those songs to work through that. I was thinking after that album how I didn’t want to explicitly keep making love songs about other people, not that any of the songs on Desire were love letters at all but it was me kinda looking for validation or understanding. Between Desire and Beat Boy I’ve had maybe the most propulsive period of my life in that so many parts of my life have totally changed – I feel like an absolutely different person – so I tried to use Beat Boy to be about like thinking about myself. Even though the songs sometimes are about connections to other people, they’re really about looking in and thinking about how I construct myself or figuring out what I want from myself.
I’d love to get your thoughts on using club sound as a vehicle for conveying earnest and revealing sentiments. What makes the genre (and its dance-floor setting) perfectly suited for such vulnerable catharsis?
I like EBM as a music genre but I’m obsessed with the name because it stands for Electronic Body Music and I think it’s such a cool or exciting thing describing music as a physical thing. I like that dance music feels the most physical type of music to me and it can pull in so many different ways with tempo or energy. It’s cool how some music hits in a way that your brain is like “I gotta flail some limbs” or something, like it compels you to move. For me, it’s a really nice way to think about connecting to other people. That relationship of dance music to the physical is important for me too because I feel like I can build myself this protective mecha or something so that I can trojan horse my emotions into something as propulsive as dance music.
I’ve also thought a lot about this idea of the nightclub in queer theory where it’s described as this potential utopia which is kinda impossible and really flawed in so many ways, so I’m really interested in acknowledging and sitting between this pull of the club as a utopian space but also the inevitable failure of that expectation, which is really what this idea of the club as a “utopia” is about. Probably the most well-known quote from Cruising Utopia by José Esteban Muñoz describes an attempt at reaching towards queerness, that it can be felt “as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” It’s incredibly lofty and wanky of me to quote this, and what Muñoz is talking about is so much more than me complaining about myself, but I think this desire of the horizon is so much of what California Girls is about. I’m really obsessed with this Kenneth Anger film called Rabbit’s Moon that’s about this clown Pierrot staring at the moon and trying to jump into it but he never makes it. I guess that’s what California Girls kinda is in the club, like trying to jump into that utopian moon. Lol, god look at me GO with these answers!
In terms of technical proficiency, what are some elements of Beat Boy’s sonic palette that you think are the biggest indicators of growth in your songwriting craft / what elements of the sound are you most proud of?
The sonic palette is totally different, which I think is the biggest indicator of growth. When I was first making music I was using old instruments which was good for Desire because I was thinking a lot more about like new wave/synth pop and early dance music that was made with these actual pieces of gear. After I finished it I really wanted to try start making pop music – having all these samples and changing parts really drastically within a song and not having to do it all by hand on these machines that kept breaking. I finally bit the bullet in 2019 and bought a laptop because I knew I needed it to keep making music. I got my tonsils cut out and I organised buying this laptop while I was healing from the surgery and I was thinking of it as this severance point like the tonsils represent the old way of doing things and once they’re gone I’m only looking forwards. Using a laptop for production is great cause I’m able to have these really frantic and harsh sounds alongside these really lush, synthesised orchestra bits. When I was making Desire I was really into synth strings but it has kept escalating, like on this album I was so obsessed with these more real-sounding violins and harps. It keeps escalating though and I’ve written some new songs after I finished Beat Boy that are even more orchestral. I think I want to write a ballet. I’m still kinda dogshit at production but using these programs came pretty quickly and easily to me so that really set me going and is probably what I’m proudest of. The other big sound thing is that my friend William Sneddon sent me some tracks/beats a while ago and
there’s two of them on the album (the first, ‘Give Me Everything’, is already out) which is really cool cause Will is incredible at music and I liked the idea of doing these like really pop-star things like getting music written for me by other people and singing over them, there’s something really funny about doing it on this small scale too. That’s kind of how I came to autotune too, because I don’t have the most refined voice so it felt interesting to me to both make it better and point out its weaknesses. Will’s production is really tender and
something about its softness is something I couldn’t do myself – I think it connects with some of the more lush parts of my own production. I think of the songs Will produced as like the BALLADS of Beat Boy. I actually have a bunch of tracks sent to me from various friends but I always find lyric writing so intimidating that I haven’t written to them yet so I really have to get on that. But collaboration is so fun and probably a shift for this record too; I wrote some of the lyrics with my closest friend Madalyn RT who’s a poet and I even
sample her reading in one song, so it’s cool to think of this album as way more expansive maybe!
You’ve linked up with Dero Arcade for the release – what is it about the label that made it the right fit for this record?
Dero Arcade just felt so perfect because they’ve put out really great pop music like Ssion, that Samantha Urbani song, the Ah Mer Ah Su album, that new Sugar High album, while also putting out much more intense music like Divide and Dissolve and Circle Pit, and then even cool gothy club stuff like Patriarchy and EN.V – but it’s all united in this aesthetic that I think finds some kinda of similar approach between these very different artists doing very different things. I was particularly excited about Dero Arcade when they toured Suckdog and re-released that Drugs are Nice album they made because it’s one of the wildest pieces of music I’d ever heard. I went to high school with Madalyn who helped me with some of the lyrics on the album and she got me really into Suckdog. I bought her the Dero Arcade reissue of the album for her birthday one year. Even having the tiniest bit of proximity to Lisa Carver is so cool to me.
What is your mindset when it comes to sharing a record – one with such personal and emotional weight to it – with strangers?
It totally freaks me out, and in the lead up to any release I always get really nervous. I feel like that about pretty much anything I do and I always have these huge bouts of imposter syndrome but like if I wasn’t doing this I have no idea what I’d be doing so I just have to make it happen. Its always incredibly warming when people like it or connect with it and that’s all you can do I guess! I went to this really sweet talk by Jesse Kanda once and the whole beginning of the lecture was them describing how nervous they were and imagining what it would be like if they could just take the nerves away but they realised in doing that it’d take away any of the release or pleasure you get from doing it so you just gotta live with it. And again its like if it didn’t feel intimidating to me I’m worried I’d get lazy so it’s good to like keep me in check! That being said I can’t really hear my music in the lead up to a release because I start getting really nit-picky or wanting to change things which is not helpful!
What do you hope audiences take away from the Beat Boy listening experience?
Woooo, that’s a big one! I hope that it lets people feel something – be it some emotional thing or they just feel it in their bodies cause they wanna dance. I love the idea of a sharing some kinda emotional moment or something. It’s nice to think if someone even listens to it one time and they smile once or something then maybe that’s like some justification. My mum says its the best album I’ve made so maybe I’ve already achieved success!
Finally, Beat Boy is coming out on August 21, which is my birthday. So thanks for that – it’s very thoughtful of you!
James, hopefully I’m able to give you the best present I could ❤ I hadn’t thought to look it up, but I’m glad the album is going to be a Leo because I want to channel all that powerful energy.
Have a listen to ‘Out The Door’ below: