Image for Barren and Blissful – Sooners

Barren and Blissful – Sooners

Written by Michael Carr on June 17, 2010

Currently in the midst of recording their forthcoming 7”, as well as writing and playing gigs, Sooners are a band to whom the old adage of ‘taking one thing at a time’ holds little or no meaning. With a sound that references the bleak sonic geography of The Dirty Three and the disembodied and wraith-like vocals of PJ Harvey, the band deliver steadily escalating pieces of arid post rock, punctuated with heavy chunks of disjointed and jangly guitars and free-wheeling drums that skitter and scramble behind the rest of the music. Barren and blissful, Sooners show great talent at crafting truly engaging music that acts on both an atmospheric and ambient level as well as a more immediate and directly lyrical one.

Playing Mum Upstairs this Friday with The Preachers, we caught up with Alister and Rob to see what’s happening at club Sooners.

Music Feeds: So you guys have been working on the single, or have finished the single, depending on how up to date my research has been, but yeah, tells us about that, what’s the plan?

Alister Hill: We’ve been working on this 7″ for the past few months now, only two tracks but it’s taken ages. We’re probably about eighty percent done now. I guess we really want to realise their full potential, as we felt a bit rushed with the last EP. We’ve got Kramer ( onboard to mix and master, so we really don’t want to mess it up! He’s produced some of our favourite acts ever (Low, Galaxie 500, Daniel Johnston). We feel like its a pretty big moment for the band…

MF: Is it a continuation of what you were doing with the EP or is it a departure? Any plans to work on more stuff soon?

AH: Both the songs we’re doing are pretty old. ‘Horses Run Out’ is going to be the single, and we wrote that just after doing the Stories EP last year. ‘Once In A While’ is an instrumental, and it’s one of the first songs we wrote, I think we’ve it played every gig. I guess we chose these two because they’re always the favourites live, and they’ve stood the test of time in a way, I’m mean we’re still not sick of them! So although that’s the new release, we pretty much only play ‘Rover Boys Express’ from the EP live, the rest of our set is new material. We write pretty quickly, and our sound has changed to incorporate more keyboards and ambient textures.

Regarding the single, there’s less of a folk influence on the instrumentation, with keyboards and organs having a larger role in the songs. Rob’s lyrics still have a narrative quality to them, and the music has a similar overall atmosphere. I guess this next release is a bit of a departure, but makes sense with what we’ve done before.

MF: You have drawn a lot of parallels in the media to bands like Dirty Three and Mogwai, towering spires of awesomeness in my opinion, is that something you consciously worked towards or did it just turn out that way? Did you hear the similarities or was the comparison only made once us journos had started throwing it around?

AH: Haha thanks for the kind words. We all really love Dirty Three, I think they’ve had a big impact on Taku and the sounds you can get with a fairly stripped back drum kit. As good as Mogwai are, they’ve never really been a big thing for us, that’s definitely more of a journo thing. PJ Harvey’s ‘White Chalk’ was a big one for us, but Rob and I being holed up in Tokyo winter was the biggest influence. Looking back it was a funny time for the band, most the time our tastes are quite different. I’m pretty much in love with Flying Lotus’ new album at the moment.

MF: Can we talk shop for a bit? How does the writing process work with the band? Do you jam a lot or is it all painfully orchestrated writing?

AH: There are two stages with us. I’ll usually come up with an idea on guitar or keyboard, and Rob and I will make a rough sketch of a song. Then we take it to rehearsal and explain what the idea is and what we want from it. Then it’s just a marathon of jamming ’til we all feel the idea works. It changes pretty dramatically when the other two get involved…

MF: Do you use a lot of pedals or do you prefer to focus on the sound of the instruments?

AH: I think we all approach our instruments pretty differently, and it also depends on the song. Rob definitely is more into the sound of the instrument, especially seeing that he has the most beautiful guitars…

I kind of just play whatever my initial idea was on guitar, so its usually pretty straight and narrow to hold the song down. Keyboards are my pride and joy, I’ve been experimenting a lot with tape saturation and love filling out our sound. Tom is a bit of a wild card, but he definitely has a thing for all things distortion, fuzz, noise… I guess we all have two sides where we’re either anchoring the song or adding textures to it.

MF: Would you say you have a sonic aesthetic you try and keep to?

AH: I definitely feel we have a specific aesthetic, but if anything it’s more the approach rather than the final sound. No backing tracks, and no pre-recorded loops. If you can’t do it live then what’s the point? There’s no cheating audiences…

MF: When it comes to recording do you do a lot of live takes or is it a rigorous system of overdubbing etc?

AH: With recording, I think our approach is pretty much reversed. Everything’s kind of mapped out, with lots of overdubs and time for experimentation. We like to cut the bass and drums together to keep a live feel, but after that it kind of goes crazy. I spent forty hours of studio time on keyboards and messing around with toy instruments! We usually keep each other in line; at the end of the day we just want to make the song as good as the live version.

MF: Do you tend to improvise when playing live?

AH: Again it really depends on the song. I think Rob tends to improvise the most live, with the rest of us kind of holding down our parts so it doesn’t become too messy. I feel that the interludes and intros/outros are an important part of our performances, and those are usually semi-structured with lots of room to experiment. As much as we want to keep the songs tight, its important to give people something a little different with each gig and keep us on our toes… you really need to step up when it comes to live music in Sydney, there’s so many great bands around.

MF: Your EP, Stories Of Towns & Cities, was written in Tokyo, how did that effect the music, if at all? Would you say that you find yourself/yourselves more creative when you’re overseas?

AH: Being there definitely had a massive impact on the writing. Rob and I were living in a shoebox apartment for a month; it was pretty inevitable we’d do something productive. I think it was mostly the isolation and the winter that had the biggest influence, it’s pretty obvious when you compare it to the stuff we’ve done since. Personally, I don’t think I’m any more creative overseas; it’s more about just having the time to sit and write songs. I talked to Rob about this recently; this band has become so busy that writing for it has become a real challenge.

MF: The EP dealt mainly with storytelling and characters in terms of the lyrics, what is it about that type of writing that resonates with the band? What made you choose the 1940s as a historical setting if you will?

Robert Irish: I grew up with my mother singing all the folk traditionals around the house, so I’ve always had an interest in words and narrative. Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Leonard Cohen are just artists that have always been around, and I suppose that rubbed off on me somewhat. Regarding Stories being set in the 40s, there were a few reasons. First and foremost I felt very Australian at the time. We were in Tokyo, and I imagined patriotism in pre-WWII Australia to have been very strong, and so it seemed appropriate. I’m also interested in the validity of religion – I thought that if I could reveal flaws that were there seventy years ago, it would be a more dramatic way to question religion in a contemporary setting.

MF: What do you guys have planned for the future?

AH: We’re just trying to get this single finished… hopefully we can have some special guests appear in the instrumental. Other than that, we’re mostly just juggling live shows around recording and trying to get more writing done. We’re going to be doing some special live performances for ‘Our New Empire’, and I know that Rob’s been working hard at a solo record that should be out soon. Other than that, we really just want to put this thing out the best we can and try get as many people as possible to hear it! I suppose we’re going to do a marathon of gigs and hopefully play outside of Sydney more…

Sooners play MUM at World Bar this Friday, 18th June.

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