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Whoosh! - An Interview with The Stroppies' Gus Lord

Photo by Naomi Lee Beveridge
23 November 2019

Photo by Naomi Lee Beveridge
“Whoosh is a silly word,” says Gus Lord of The Stroppies. “There is something completely nonsense about it, especially when removed from any kind of context. For me, it conjures up images of something absurd and transient; two things fundamental in the experience of listening to or making good pop music.” 

Whoosh may indeed be a silly word but it almost onomatopoeically captures the sound and essence of The Stroppies’ first proper debut album, one that breezes along with boundless energy, a refrained pop strut, infectious grooves and the sort of jangling guitar melodies that sound like a prime-era Flying Nun band. 

Between them, the Melbourne-based band – currently comprised of Gus Lord, Rory Heane, Claudia Serfaty and Adam Hewitt – have been in countless bands such as Boomgates, Twerps, Tyrannamen, Primetime, Blank Statements, The Blinds, White Walls, See Saw and Possible Humans. The band formed together around a kitchen table in 2016 with a heavy focus around the essence of collaboration and a DIY ethos. This led to an acclaimed cassette release of lounge room recordings, which was then pressed onto vinyl to more acclaim. The Stroppies’ next step was then taking their DIY approach to home recordings into the studio to make a transitional leap to what would become their proper studio debut.
Endearment is something that The Stroppies have no problem retaining on Whoosh! It’s a record that possesses all the spunk and gusto of a young band hurtling forward yet also knowing when to take their foot off the accelerator. It’s an album that simultaneously feels young and fresh but wise beyond its years. Combining taut post-punk rhythms, indie jangle, seamless melody and sugary pop, it’s a record that Lord says is influenced by: “All sorts of things – life, work, relationships, old cartoons and the last 60+ years of guitar-based pop music in some form or another. This includes everything from Bill Fay to The Clean to Stephen Malkmus.” 

Whoosh! is a record that combines a natural sense of urgency with a thoughtful approach. Something that the recording process itself was emblematic of. That was the urgent part, what then followed was a focused and labour intensive approach to get the most out of the bare bones of the record as possible. “We spent hours building up, stripping down and mixing the work that had been recorded the month prior, throwing everything we could think of at the songs to see what would stick. We utilized whatever was on hand to pull sounds, including but not limited to vintage synths, rain sticks and an old door frame that we used for percussion.” This was done with Zachary Schneider, a friend of the band, budding producer and established musician who is most notable for his guitar work in bands such as Totally Mild, Free Time and Full Ugly

By the end of that period the band got so absorbed in the record that they almost lost sight of it. “I’m still a little too close to this record for it to evoke anything in particular,” Lord says. “Except for perhaps dull anxiety. Towards the end of recording I felt like I was drowning in the process and lost all clarity on what it meant or it’s value. Kind of like saying a word over and over again – it starts to lose all meaning.” Although with time comes clarity and even amidst the fog of making a record that has taken over his life, Lord knows the band has made something special. “Reflecting on the process I feel really proud of the album.”

Special thanks to Gus for taking time out for the back and forth. Here’s hoping they make to U.S. shores some day!

James Broscheid: Congrats on your excellent debut full-length! The Stroppies have been a band of shorter format releases; 2-7” singles and 1 EP. Why is now a good time for your first LP?

Gus Lord: Thank you! I think we are a band that suits shorter format releases, but the time felt right to make a record. The group started out very modestly and somewhat haphazardly developed a momentum that surprised us all. Whoosh! is the result of that. Still, the album only clocks in at about 30 minutes. There’s nothing worse than a gratuitous indulgent record I think, so we tried to avoid that!

JB: Why do you think The Stroppies have been suited to shorter format releases? As a fan, it seems like an LP (even at 35 minutes), has been a long time coming and there is nothing gratuitously indulgent about Whoosh!

GL: That’s nice of you to say. For the most part I have rarely enjoyed when albums start clocking past the 40 minute mark and I am just projecting that on the band. Personal preference I suppose.

JB: From all indications online, the recording sessions for Whoosh! (in studio and out), were full of self-doubt. Why was that? Did self-doubt permeate the band’s earlier work too or was it a matter of being self-critical because it is your first full-length?

GL: In regards to making Whoosh, perhaps the gravity of crafting something like an “album” weighed a tad heavier on everyone’s mind a little. We are all avid music listeners and so the concept of the album as a work of art is an important one to us and in turn, it yielded a little more personal pressure. 90% of the time though, those feelings are unproductive and are actually quite detrimental to the whole process. I don’t think this kind of self-doubt was evident in earlier recordings because the idea that they would find an audience was slightly more abstract. That being said, self doubt is just my default state of being. I often feel like my creative process is just me faking it while my little inner critic tries to call my bluff so I suppose it’s always somewhat present in anything I do.

JB: I can relate to what you say about self-doubt as I’ve lived with it my whole life. Not sure where it comes from or when it started other than perhaps early childhood and a poor public schools system. I imagine (if I were a musician/in a band), I would be a train wreck because of it! Was the overdubbing process a bit of a chore, taking the most time to complete? Were there any points of self-affirmation during that time to dissuade any notions of self-doubt?

GL: Yeah, it’s awful. More awful however would be having no self doubt. That means you are an asshole I think! It’s just a bit about balance. I think that if you care about what you are doing and about what your peers will think, it’s natural to have self doubt. It’s a psychological defense mechanism designed to stop you from having to go through the pain of people thinking something you slaved over is stupid. It’s often very detrimental to getting things done and for the most part is insufferable to hear people whinge about. So I try not to pay it much mind but, it comes through quite often for me. I don’t really find the overdubbing process to bring up this feeling though. It’s actually my favorite part of a recording. I think it gives you a chance to elevate the arrangement and be more playful with the process. 

JB: How much tinkering goes on with instrumentation before you arrive at a point where it’s just right? 

GL: In a rehearsal setting not very much tinkering occurs. Generally, once the lyrics and chords are written, the arrangements are worked on collaboratively. The tinkering usually starts during overdub recording, when we have tracked basic structures of the songs. The ability to add or subtract, and the space and time afforded in an overdubbing process offers you a lot of creative potential and, for our band, feels like a key part of the songwriting process. It’s kind of like having a big block of marble in which you have chisselled out a basic form and you are now ready to get into the fine details. Through that process of pushing and pulling you start to really find the identity of the song. It’s an important process.

JB: It was reported that recording sessions for this LP were pressed for time because of monetary constraints. How does that impact your mindsets as artists? With the luxury of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently? 

GL: I think being time pressed and fiscally stretched has a big impact on our mindsets as artists. On a personal level it can be a little exhausting; especially in regards to working in order to fund your own projects but, often times being thrifty can be a positive and any kind of economic mindset can aid a project favorably. The kind of music we make would probably suffer from being overproduced so the sense of urgency one gets from having a tight deadline is desirable. There is probably a bunch of things I would change about Whoosh! given the chance but, being that it has been almost a year since it was recorded I think this is natural. I’ve been very flattered and surprised with the response it has received so in this regard I try to focus on that and not dwell on what could have been better about it.

JB: If time/budget were not factors, what would be your ideal setting for recording a record? Who would you like to work with from a production standpoint and what kind of instrumentation would you love to experiment with?

GL: If we are talking in hypotheticals, I would love to make a record with Jim Dickinson in Memphis sometime in the 70s. He produced Big Star’s Third, and for me that album is the high watermark for what a great rock album could be. His arrangements are incredible and the way he employs strings and horns really elevate the songs. The recording equipment and instruments of that vintage are my favorite. Maybe we could ship in an early Moog or something to experiment with! The more feasible answer to that question would be perhaps at home, with enough money to cover basic living expenses and an engineer who could ensure we don’t make any terrible mistakes and lots of time to learn the craft and record ourselves properly. I’ve been investing in a home studio set up so hopefully this can become some sort of a reality.

JB: Listening to the difference between the stroppetape demos and Whoosh! is like night and day! Can you discuss the process of going from demos to finished product? How intense of a process was it? With today’s abundant DIY-ethic and bedroom recordings, some bands/artists would be satisfied to release the demos you created for this LP!

GL: The demos are mainly recorded by myself sometimes alone and often with Claudia on our Tascam 4-track. They are usually the first thing anyone else in the band hears before we start working on the song collectively. I see them as an integral part of the bands process but, at the same time, somewhat separate. They are kind of the unmitigated, unmeditated parts of the creative process – little sketches as it were. I try not to be too authoritative in replicating them exactly when it comes to jamming them as I feel it’s much more interesting to have other people respond to and invest themselves in the song. This is why they often sound quite different to the finished product. Also, because they are recorded on a semi-functioning four track, they are inevitably more lo fi. I love the demos but it never really feels like the Stroppies until everyone has played on a song which is why it was important to make the album. We will however, be doing a very short run of cassettes that compile all the demos around the Whoosh recording sessions so anyone interested can have the best of both worlds.

JB: Bands are all about chemistry. I want to ask about the history of the band and how The Stroppies formed. What was is it that appealed to you about the others in the band? How do you reach the point where you know you’ve got something special with the line-up you have?

GL: Generally my starting point for any kind of project is to ask myself “Would I like to be around these people for longer than usual periods of time?” And if the answer is yes, you can normally assume you’ll be on to a good thing. Claudia started playing bass because we were going to be forming the band and so she comes at the whole thing with a really unique perspective in regards to how she writes chord progressions and songs. I had never played piano before the band started and I taught myself in response to some of the songs she was writing. Sometimes not knowing is a really great way to make something dynamic and interesting and I think thats a big part of what makes whatever chemistry we have work.

JB: In line with the last question, in the early days of the band, how was Claudia persuaded to leave London for Melbourne? I understand it has taken some time to realize the band as a “real” band. Why is that?

GL: Funnily enough, she didn’t need much persuading, she just did it. I think she was ready for a change. It’s worked out quite well (despite having to endure Australia’s draconian partner visa application process). I think because the band started so informally it took a while for it to sink in. Now there’s lots of stuff happening so we have just adapted.

JB: With the rather clean aesthetics of the record’s cover art, how did the title come about and what does it say about the songwriting within? I understand the songwriting stems more from character writing rather than personal perspective?

GL: The title is just an exercise in absurdity. I liked the idea of having a sound that connoted an action and wasn’t particularly directive in any kind of intellectual or narrative sense. I wanted it relayed kind of like in a comic book or cartoon in that regard. Perhaps that implies that what is contained within is pulpy and childish but a more positive lens to look through would imply that the record is light, ephemeral and fun. The songwriting does indeed stem from an imagined character basis (at least when it comes to my songs). I feel like it’s much easier to project your truth onto someone or something else rather than looking inside and trying to articulate it using your own voice. Through the imagined lens of someone else, feelings and ideas are a little more malleable and there is a lot more room for play. It certainly frees one up a fair bit!

JB: I like your take on the album’s title. With all the upheaval going on in the world as far as politics & nationalism, do you think the LP’s release couldn’t happen at a better time? In that there are plenty of introspective, protest records being released currently but it’s also important to not dwell too much on the negative?

GL: I don’t really think that I could write overtly political music it would just come out ham fisted and embarrassing. Getting lost in art or music for the sake of getting lost is a lovely, life-affirming experience and that kind of joy can be a positive social force too. Sometimes you don’t need to be too explicit emotionally or politically to make a strong point. At the end of the day it just comes down to how you want to express yourself and what you respond to. I hope people find something in our record to enjoy.

JB: Australia has had its share of tremendous influences throughout the years. From The Saints & Radio Birdman to Glide & Royal Headache. What kind of scene do you enjoy (hopefully!), in Melbourne? Are there some local bands/artists you can recommend that we have perhaps not heard of yet? What’s going on with Twerps? Their last LP was a blinder!

GL: Yes, I love all the bands you just mentioned! Twerps is defunct as far as I can tell. Marty (Frawley) from the band just put out his first solo record which I played some bass on and Julia (MacFarlane) put out an absolute cracker of a record under the moniker J Macfarlanes Reality Guests called TA DA! That was released on Hobbies Galore which is an Alex (MacFarlane) from Twerps project. I think he’s releasing the best music in Australia (well to my taste). A very eclectic roster curated by a very knowledgeable man. I would say that the Hobbies Galore bandcamp page is a great place to start for anyone interested in new Australian music. If you like punk rock, Anti Fade Records is great too. Butter Sessions do a bunch of good local electronic music. There’s heaps of stuff!

JB: After touring Europe over this past summer, anything in the works for some dates in the U.S. (please, please!)?

GL: I’m sorry there is not. But you know, if someone extends a little helping hand, we will happily oblige!

JB: Is the fact that playing some dates over here in the U.S. strictly down to the fiscal limitations of being on a small record label? I would be happy to donate my driving/roadie abilities should something come to fruition!

GL: That’s very kind! It mainly is fiscal. The U.S. visas are vicious! Also there’s the fact that we all work full time jobs and have lives built around this little hobby (music), we have. It can be hard to pack it all up go away and then come back. I would very much like to come back to the U.S. though. I’ve always had a great time visiting and playing there.

JB: I am always curious about where musicians who inspire me draw inspiration from. What are the band’s influences (music, art, literature, etc.)? Was there a song/band that you can remember from your youth which piqued your interest to become a musician in the first place?

GL: My biggest influence is probably the other people I play/have played with. I see the Stroppies as a composite of all the things I’ve learned by watching other people in the bands that I have been in. I grew up with Alex Macfarlane (Twerps drummer) and we have played in many bands together. I picked up the bass because I used to watch him and his dad jam and I wanted to join in. His dad also played me The Beatles for the first time. The song was I Am the Walrus and we were in a camper van somewhere in rural Victoria and it inverted my world somewhat. (That moment), could probably be considered ground zero for my interest in music. I still love The Beatles. I very much like David Byrne’s penchant for the absurd and Ray Davies’ ability to tap into the eccentricities and minutiae of life and imbue them with that very kind of droll, black British humor. In terms of my guitar playing I would say Stephen Malkmus and Alex Chilton register high on the list but I don’t know really. I try not to be too conscious of that. 

JB: You mention making changes to Whoosh! with the luxury of hindsight. What would those changes be and would they be “lessons learned” you could apply to future recordings?

*
GL*: I think the answer to this question would change week by week. Sometimes I wonder if we should have recorded it a little more modestly at home cause its a very large sounding record. This has pros and cons and sometimes it’s an approach that excites me and other times not depending on how I’m feeling. At the end of the day the songs are what they are. It’s a useless exercise pontificating on that too much.

JB: It is my understanding when taking up instruments that learning piano first makes it easier to take up other instruments. Was the piano difficult to learn when the band started?

GL: I think the best way to learn an instrument is to get excited about music first, and secondly to have people around you who can kindle that excitement a bit and get you moving past the inevitable painful process of teaching your fingers or mouth or feet or whatever new motor skills. I actually had piano lessons when I was 10 and didn’t like it. It wasn’t until I picked up a bass guitar at my friend’s house and jammed with him and his dad that I became interested in playing when I was 13. This was also when I was sort of developing some autonomy in my music taste so the two things dovetailed nicely into whatever is happening for me today. I found learning the piano for the band difficult but also fun so that helped. I’m still learning it!

JB: You brought up a couple projects from Twerp members that have been released. Do you or any Stroppies members have other projects in the works? How important is it to have the support network of your music community? It sounds like it is a tight one.

GL: Yes, Adam plays in a band called Possible Humans. They released their debut LP (Everybody Split), through Hobbies Galore and now it’s getting a repress through Trouble in Mind in the U.S. They are favorites of ours and part of the reason we asked Adam to play in the band was because we really love Possible Humans. Rory just started a band called Program that he is fronting. They’ve got a debut record coming out on Anti Fade in Australia. 


JB: What is a Stroppie and how did the band settle on the name? Were there other names in contention? 

GL: A stroppie isn’t a thing but it is something that you can be – to be Stroppy means to be grumpy, petulant and maybe ready to throw a tantrum. The name was a means to an end and now it has stuck. It would be stupid if we had a serious name I think! 

Upcoming live dates:

December 12, 2019: Melbourne, Victoria at The Curtin
May 21, 2020: London, UK at Oslo Hackney

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