The Goon Sax Want to Hold Your Sweaty Hand
Very quietly, Brisbane-bred indie-rock trio the Goon Sax’s debut album, Up to Anything (Chapter Music), imbued 2016 with excellence that it sorely needed. The members — Louis Forster, James Harrison and Riley Jones — are all in their teens, which makes excellently self-deprecating choruses like “You don’t have to hold my sweaty hand / I completely understand” all the more stinging. The group’s charmingly rumpled appearance and metronomic, sneakily simple songcraft are red herrings for how deep their humor goes, whether cursing their smartphones, futilely succumbing to home haircuts or choosing ice cream as a friend.
The Goon Sax exemplify how so-called twee musical conventions and a preoccupation with one’s awkward stage can be as clever and urgent as any other excuse to rock out — though they’re already plotting ways to incorporate their Solange influences into album two. And while it’s unfair to not give Forster full credit for his prematurely realized gifts as half of a pithy songwriting duo, it must be noted that his father is Robert Forster, half the brilliant songwriting partnership of the Go-Betweens. We spoke to Forster over Skype from his home in Australia, and got him to confess to writing Nicki Minaj erotica.
Are you surprised at the response that Up to Anything has been getting?
Yeah, I am. I was pretty surprised when “Sometimes Accidentally” — the first single off the album — came out, and about three hours later, Marc Riley played the song on BBC Radio 6. This was back in September .
How did the Goon Sax come to exist?
James and I had been both in another band that took itself very seriously, and I got frustrated with it. I was trying to write songs for that band, and other people didn’t like them, so I left and started playing music with James. I had the idea that I wanted to start a band called the Goon Sax, and we kind of ended up basing what the band would be around what that name felt to us: more fun and not taking ourselves as seriously as before.
What did the other band sound like?
It sort of changed every week based on what people were listening to. At our worst, it kind of sounded like Oasis.
And you guys were, like, 14?
Yeah, 13 or 14. There’s a few recordings of it, and I think of them quite fondly now, actually.
Was that your first band?
Actually, I used to play in a band that wasn’t very serious with my next-door neighbor called the Pine Cones. We’d knock on people on our street’s door and play some Ramones covers.
How did you and James meet Riley?
We were introduced to her through a mutual friend and had known her for like a year before she joined the band. I think she used to tell people she played the drums, but didn’t actually. [Laughs] We wanted her to be our drummer, but we found out she didn’t play the drums or even own drums. But then she did end up playing drums.
Did she learn just to join the Goon Sax?
I don’t know if she did just to join the band; I think she had, like, three lessons or something. So, when we started practicing, she knew, like, one or two drum beats. Which she played on every single song. But James and I were blown away by it; I think at our first practice we were like, “It doesn’t really matter what you do — if you just want to hit the snare every now and then, that’s fine.” So, when she was playing actual drumbeats, it was a pleasant surprise.
Was a song like “Telephone” — where the tempo actually changes — a challenge for her?
I think “Boyfriend” was the biggest challenge because, before that, she wasn’t really doing fills. She had to practice that a lot, and we recorded it after she’d been playing for four months and had been in the band for three. And that’s the version that’s on the album; we tried re-recording it in the studio, but I ended up singing the lyrics wrong and didn’t really notice. So, we ended up taking that early version.
The whole album has an amateurish, first-take feel to it and I wondered whether that was intentional.
I think it just came from not being, like, very good at our instruments. A lot of those songs are definitely not the first take. Our playing was not super-tight. Hopefully we’re getting tighter.
How do you decide whether you or James sings lead vocals?
There’s one new song we’re working on right now that Riley and I both wrote that she sings. But generally, James sings the songs he writes and I sing the songs I write. I think we both write to suit our vocal abilities and our vocal style. We’ve had some practices where, just for fun, I sang some of James’ songs and he sang mine, but it wasn’t very good. [Laughs]
What’s different about the songs you’re writing for the next album so far?
In my head, I think I’m trying to widen the mold of what I’ll accept as a Goon Sax song. Accepting a song is quite a difficult process for me, and I think [for] the first album, it was very narrow. It’s been really freeing to be, like, I can be inspired by Solange, or Stevie Wonder, or Prince if I want to. It doesn’t have to be so niche.
And it will have Riley singing lead?
Yeah, she’s getting more confident doing it. She’s doing it on this new song, and she’s singing along with James on another song — they kind of go half and half. Hopefully she’ll write another song for the album, so maybe she’ll have a lead on two and a half songs or something, and it’ll be a little move evenly split. I think on the last record she was still very uncomfortable doing backing vocals; when we recorded the ones for “Boyfriend,” she was really self-conscious and I really had to talk her into it. But eventually she did it and it sounded great.
On the topic of splitting songwriting duties, how irritating has it been when people bring up comparisons to your dad’s band?
Um, varying degrees of irritating. There were a few articles that interpreted a few songs that weren’t even mine as being about my dad, and that was just so far-fetched and ridiculous and completely untrue. Like, come on — we had one single out and people were doing that. But in general I don’t mind it.
I do think sonically there are some inescapable parallels between the Go-Betweens and the Goon Sax, but I feel a little guilty about indulging in them.
There are always Go-Betweens fans at our shows, which is really cool, and they’re very nice to us. But it is very a different feeling when an 18-year-old kid comes up to you at the show and says, “This music really means something to me,” and when an elderly Go-Betweens fan is drawing comparisons.
Has your dad had any direct influence on you being a musician?
Well, both of my parents play music a lot. My mom plays violin as well, and used to play in bands. If either of them had any influence on my songwriting, it was probably subconscious. But I think them both playing music just sparked the thought, like made me more conscious that I wanted to do it at any early age.
The biggest thing for me about Up to Anything is that it’s one of the most self-deprecating albums I’ve ever heard. A line like “I want people to think about me” is delivered like it’s embarrassed to want attention.
[Laughs] Yeah, I wasn’t doing very much, and I had some vain hope that people would be imagining what I was doing.
Did you know that song [“Up to Anything”] was going to be the first song on the album when you wrote it?
No, I didn’t actually like that song when I wrote it. It was one of the ones I was not very sure of. The riff, I remember playing it on a very distorted electric guitar with Riley’s drum teacher, who’s a very rock-y drummer, and it sounded very grungy or something, and I didn’t like it. But then, I don’t know — it grew on me. I still don’t really like the recording of that song. The essence of it, to me, was captured the worst, or it doesn’t convey the sentiment I wanted it to, maybe.
What song do you feel was captured the best?
I think “Ice Cream” came out very well. I remember just sitting in the mixing room bumming out, and James spent several hours adding layers of guitar and vocals and keyboard, and we just got it to sound really good. Maybe because we didn’t rush through it so much.
I wanted to know if you intentionally followed “Home Haircuts” with “Boyfriend” in the sequence because of its line about giving him a haircut.
No, that was just a coincidence; I hadn’t even thought of that. That was a pretty big hair phase in my life. I think it was running my life.
Is this your first time bleaching it? [Forster’s hair on Skype is shorter and blonder than in any of the band’s videos]
Yeah, it really burned. My mom put it in, and she kind of spread it really badly, so bits of it were still brown and I had tiger stripes, sort of. I didn’t look really good. I had to bleach it like three times; it’s probably really dead now.
Does that mean “Home Haircuts” is based on a true story?
It was based on numerous haircuts that my mom gave me, but also all the haircuts that I mention in the song: David Byrne, John Lennon, Roger McGuinn, Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand. People whose photos I actually did take to the hairdresser. The purpose of that song at the time was that I just wanted to include the line “What are you thinking is all I think about at night,” so I built the song around it. Because this person knew how much I cared about my hair, so I wanted to show I cared about her more. [Laughs]
Is that something you’ve done a lot, built the rest of a song around one line?
Yeah, a couple of times. That definitely happened with “Anyone Else,” which is the only time I’ve written lyrics before I had the song. I had the chorus [“Does it mean anything to you / Why am I doing what anyone else could do”], and then three weeks later I wrote the whole thing around fitting that in.
Because Up to Anything finds you beating up on yourself so much, I wanted to ask, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?
Oh … I don’t know. Lied to people I care about, maybe. [Laughs] I have a very bad memory, and the other day I was talking to this friend of mine about this pun I’d come up with two or three years ago, for this Nicki Minaj erotica I wrote with another friend. And the name of it was “Minaj a Trois.” But then she said, “I told you that pun,” and showed me a screenshot from two or three years ago. I felt bad. I actually thought I’d written it myself.
Do you normally write Nicki Minaj erotica, or was this for a special occasion?
[Laughs] It’s the only erotica I’ve written to date; it was for James’ birthday. I think he still has it somewhere in his room.
What have you been listening to lately?
I’m listening to the new Solange record a lot. It’s really, really good. I do this every now and again, but I come back to [the Strokes’] Is This It a lot, which was my favorite record when I was 12 or 13, and I still get new things from it all the time.
That’s interesting because there’s a certain dryness to the rhythm of those Strokes songs where I can really hear how they’d sound like the Goon Sax if you slowed them down. Except where they projected this caricature of cool, you guys are almost a caricature of awkwardness.
I don’t know how it ended up so awkward. [Laughs] I’d really like to be a cool band.