Up To Anything, the 2016 debut from Brisbane, Australia group The Goon Sax, was a brilliant reminder of indie pop’s effectiveness when it’s distilled to its simplest form: loose, jangling guitars and wry, understated vocals. But when it came time for the trio to record what became their second album, We’re Not Talking, each member of the band found themselves pondering the definition of “pop,” and how it related to the ways they wanted to develop their sound.
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“Pop’s a really odd thing,” says bassist/guitarist/vocalist Louis Forster (who is the son of Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens). “I think some people just see [pop] as something sounding polished and ultimately very accessible. But I think pop’s something that exists in a lot of forms, in all kinds of music. On jazz records, there are parts that are really poppy. I guess our idea of pop is a very westernized thing, and it comes out in funny forms; to me, [pop] satisfies something human and subconscious—or it should.”
Accordingly, We’re Not Talking balances the band’s usual laser-focused emotional acuity and economical instrumentation with a more expansive take on pop formalism. The keening opening song, “Make Time 4 Love,” boasts insistent cowbell, delicate strings, and jaunty horns; “Sleep EZ” joins delicate, harmony-rich choruses indebted to ‘80s U.K. dreampop to a contorted bridge that boasts a spurt of disco-punk beats, wherein Forster stutter-sings like a skipping LP; and the fierce, emotionally wrecked highlight “She Knows” charges forward on turbulent strings and livewire bass grooves. Even the more straightforward, strummy acoustic-pop songs boast more (and different) hues; the lovely “We Can’t Win,” for example, adds mournful piano and glassy twinkles of percussion into the mix.
“We wanted to make this record more collaboratively,” says Forster. “We had more ideas and more things that we wanted to try out.”
Forster and his bandmates—bassist/guitarist James Harrison and drummer/vocalist Riley Jones—were determined to push themselves on We’re Not Talking. Forster cites Scott Walker’s Scott 4 and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as inspirations, as well as the work of ESG, Liquid Liquid, and Jenny Hval. “I really like how [Jenny Hval’s] record had those bits where everything sort of drops back, and it’s just spoken word,” he explains. “We were very obsessed with making something very honest, and she does that really, really well in her lyrics. They’re incredible.”
Jones spent much of the recording sessions trying to funnel her love for Tall Dwarfs’ Chris Knox into the final product. “I’d always be like, ‘Chris Knox reference, Chris Knox reference,’” she laughs, “and it just didn’t really come across. I don’t know if anyone else was behind [the idea], but I was just very inspired by him as a pop songwriter.”
The slippery definition of “pop music” was another topic of intra-band debate during the recording process. On Talking, the group worked with outside producers—Architecture In Helsinki vocalist Cameron Bird and the band’s former drummer/keyboardist/guitarist James Cecil.
“We wanted it to be more polished and poppier than the last [album],” Jones says. “We tried to explain to them what we wanted, but I think they really had different ideas about it, so it was a bit tough sometimes. We were all pushing for things, and we couldn’t communicate or couldn’t find a middle ground.”
Those clashing ideas didn’t undermine the final product, but they did give the band more insight into the ways they approach their career—and the possibilities available to them as a result. “When I said we wanted it to be more poppy,’ they were like, ‘OK, poppy,’ and then they had this completely different idea of pop,” Jones recalls. “I just had no idea that things could be that clean and so produced.”
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Adds Forster: “Sometimes you forget that there are words that other people have a very different version of, you know? To us, ‘pop’ probably meant something worlds away from what other people would think. We think quite similarly sometimes, the three of us—we often think that because all three of us are on the same wavelength about something, it must be very obvious to anybody else, when it’s not.”
This deep, personal connection dates back to before the Goon Sax’s 2013 inception, when Forster and Harrison forged a fast friendship thanks to their shared musical interests (the Raincoats, the Clean, the Fall, Marine Girls) and—to borrow Jones’ phrasing—similarly “silly” personalities; five years in, those personal bonds continue to provide a much-needed buffer against the trials of being in a band. “After the last tour, I was like, ‘Oh my God, can’t wait to get away from these guys,'” Jones recalls, adding with a laugh: “[I was] really ready for break, and then on day two, I was like, ‘Hey guys, are you doing anything today? Do you want to hang out, maybe?’ I just missed them.”
As the Goon Sax gear up for yet another tour—they’ll be spending the fall playing throughout England and North America—they remain cognizant of (and confident about) where they want their band to go in the future. To that end, We’re Not Talking is not so much a bridge to the next career milestone: it’s more like a roadmap.
“I definitely learned that I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do anymore,” Jones says. “We really thought, like, ‘Oh, we’re young, we probably need some grown-ups giving us some good advice.’ But I just want to be free to create stuff naturally, and to push it really far.”