With her Grammy nomination and frequent performances on late-night television, Courtney Barnett may be a rising star, but the Australian “micro-label” she runs with partner Jen Cloher, Milk! Records, remains a humble concern. The small, Melbourne-focused roster resembles a tight-knit family, and garage-pop trio Loose Tooth are its latest adoptees.
“It’s just surreal,” says guitarist Nellie Jackson, who fronts the band while Etta Curry and Luc Dawson hold down drum and bass duties. “I never thought they’d sign us.I put Milk! on a pedestal. But then I thought, ‘Well, what’s the harm?’ So we sent them demos, and they loved them. I’m still pinching myself about it.”
What was initially planned as a debut album condensed to become the new eight-song EP Saturn Returns, which includes the band’s 2015 singles “Everything Changes” and “Will You.” Recorded with Paul Maybury, who’s helmed several albums for Australian breakouts King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, the EP combines moody Velvet Underground jangle with blankets of reverb and girl-group harmonizing.
Jackson and Curry have been playing music together since they were 13. By the middle of their teen years, they were in the all-girl punk band The Gingers, who received a fair amount of hype in and around Melbourne, but dissolved after the demands of an aggressive record label drained the fun from the project. “There was a lot of pressure to write a hit, or look a certain way,” Jackson recalls. “It ruined that band, so we never wanted to be in that position again.”
That history makes the down-to-earth, supportive vibe of Milk! that much more appealing, and you can hear the results in the music. Saturn Return is sweetly crunchy and darkly woozy, brimming with primitive cool. “Everything Changes” is a slow-burning romantic kiss-off; Dawson takes lead vocals on “Back of You,” his hushed tenor perfectly offset by clanging guitars; and “History Aside” highlights the band’s knack for eerie vocal harmonies. “If we didn’t have that element, being able to harmonize and make interesting vocal lines, I would worry that things could get a bit same-y,” Jackson admits.
The songs are also characterized by a deadpan sense of humor, which extends to the group’s overall aesthetic. Their conceptual music videos, made with friends on the cheap, cover everything from hungry vampires (“Bites Will Bleed”) to tantric sex (“Everything Changes”). “Etta’s friends had been going to these tantric sex workshops,” Jackson explains. “We were confused about what tantric sex was. So we looked it up online and found this really bad instructional video. It was really ‘80s, with really bad music, and Etta said it would be a hilarious film clip to make.”
What’s clear from talking to them is that all of this is made possible by the support and encouragement they receive from Milk!, and the label’s willingness to let them follow their instincts. “They’d seen all the effort we put in,” says Jackson, “and the care we’d taken. We went into radio stations ourselves and dropped off CDs, we did all the art ourselves—everything was done with care and a DIY attitude. I think that’s what they look for in a band. Milk! is there to support you, not to make the decisions for you.” With a full-length on the way at the end of the year, and support beginning to trickle in from major U.S. cities, the group is primed to take their cockeyed approach to garage-pop to an even bigger audience—and they’ve found the perfect partners to help them do it. “It really is special to be on that label,” says Jackson. “It means a lot to us.”