Brisbane teenagers The Goon Sax are getting all the right attention, here and abroad, for their deceptively simple and heartfelt pop. Fans of The Go-Betweens might recognise a pattern. By Andy Hazel.
Brisbane indie band The Goon Sax
It’s late on a Friday night in Melbourne and the crowd packed into the Tote is a curious mix of hollering youth and couples in their 50s applauding enthusiastically. Behind a curtain, side of stage, Brisbane band The Goon Sax are huddled in a circle.
As the sound of the crowd grows louder, a man climbs onto the stage. He wrests the microphone from its stand, clumsily declares his love for the band and leads the crowd in a chant of “one more song, one more song, one more song”. When he’s pulled back into the crowd by his friends, the three members of The Goon Sax amble out from behind the curtain and smile at each other.
“We’ve never played an encore before,” mutters Louis Forster, as much to the band as to the audience. The responding clamour nearly drowns out his briskly strummed acoustic guitar, Riley Jones’s precise drumming and James Harrison’s lugubrious bass as the trio mark the milestone with their song “Susan”.
Named as a pun on the silver bag inside boxed wine – a product two-thirds of the band are too young to legally purchase – The Goon Sax are three very different individuals who work, act and speak in an odd synchrony. Whether on stage or around a table at a ramen restaurant, as they were hours before their performance, there is a keenness and openness about their interactions and conversations. It is a mutual trust that gives them the platform to make very interesting music.
“Someone said, ‘This is a surprisingly good band with one of the stupidest names I’ve ever heard,’ ” says Forster between mouthfuls of noodles.
“My mum has to justify it a bit,” adds Harrison. “She says, ‘My son is in a band called The Goon Sax but it’s nothing about alcohol.’ ” The others laugh. Harrison is slightly older than Forster and Jones. Later, out the back of the Tote, he sips beer and takes a drag on a cigarette as the three of them answer questions with unguarded honesty.
“It is a good band name to say at parties,” Jones says. “We played a lot of house parties before we released songs. As a favour.”
“As a favour to us,” Forster adds. “Not the hosts.” The three of them laugh again.
Harrison and Forster credit Jones with being the most organised of the band. “If there was a Riley quote it would probably be, ‘We need to make a plan,’ ” Forster says.
“My mum thought the band was kind of childish,” Jones says, adopting a maternal tone: “ ‘Oh, it’s so nice they’re writing songs.’ ” More than her bandmates, she sees the band as an artistic project. She designed the album artwork and T-shirts and is angling to have the trio relocate to Berlin, where she plans to study art.
Earlier this year, the group received a breakthrough via a positive review of their debut album, Up to Anything, on taste-making music website Pitchfork. The site rates albums out of 10, and gave The Goon Sax an enthusiastic seven.
“Louis checks Pitchfork every day,” laughs Jones.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Forster. “Pitchfork has the power to ruin people – it’s scary. When our label texted us the review I was shaking, trying to type the reply into my phone.”
“Oh, man, we were so excited,” Harrison says, his eyes widening. “It was like a dream.”
“We decided not to read it until we sat down on a bench together and had some sushi, some comfort food,” Forster says. “I was just praying for something above a seven.”
“Me, too,” Harrison says. “It was a really good day. The sushi was really nice.”
Since forming in 2014, when they were 15 and 16 years old, The Goon Sax have vaulted into the discussions about promising signs in the Australian music industry. The band soon recorded two songs as a rough demo, “Boyfriend” and “Anyone Else”, which they sent to their favourite record label, Melbourne’s Chapter Music. These led the band to become the first the venerable label had signed based on an unsolicited recording.
“We get sent a lot of demos and most of them are pretty terrible,” says Chapter Music’s Guy Blackman. “But we were immediately struck by ‘Boyfriend’. It’s a really smart premise for a pop song that we hadn’t heard before. We flew up to Brisbane to see them play, and their mix of self-consciousness, determination, openness and stage presence was the last thing we needed to convince us.”
As Forster remembers it, he never wanted to put music up on SoundCloud. “Right from the get-go, before we signed to Chapter, I really wanted to put out a seven-inch – we couldn’t afford a 12-inch,” he says. “To be honest, I never thought of doing it any other way.”
The Goon Sax’s songs sound both throwaway and meticulous, recalling a certain Australian band from the past. It’s an unavoidable connection. Their unusual love of early ’80s acoustic pop, their careful rhythms, their habit of substituting a guitar solo for a bass solo, bookish lyrics, and the reason for the appearance of middle-aged couples at their shows is typically explained by the looming presence of one man: Louis Forster’s father, Robert, co-founder of one of the country’s most beloved and respected bands, The Go-Betweens. While his name often precedes that of the band members in articles written about them, he doesn’t have a behind-the-scenes role.
“He’s very hands-off,” says Louis. “Well, he’s very hands-on with, ‘Don’t lose your capo’ and ‘Look after the guitar’ – stuff like that, which is annoying if anything. He’s decidedly not told us what to do and let us – let me – do some things he knew were pretty stupid. Maybe I have to realise they’re stupid for myself. I suppose I appreciate that. I’ve never asked him for his opinion, but he’ll give us feedback after a show. All our parents do.”
“Celebrity,” the sales assistant shouts. “I saw you on the front of a glossy magazine.”
Forster and Harrison have just entered a guitar shop in Brisbane and Forster’s bashful response to the attention shows that he’s still uncertain how to handle incidents such as these. The “glossy magazine” is the previous week’s local street press. He laughs, chats shyly with the shop’s staff and buys some bass strings before we head back outside and along leafy winding streets. We’re part way through a tour of the band’s key landmarks, most of which are scattered around Brisbane’s inner-northern suburbs.
Arriving outside a slumbering grey two-storey Queenslander, Forster shields his eyes and smiles. “Riley’s old place. That was great. We wrote a lot of songs there.”
We continue through the sites of house parties and old homes, and as Harrison and Forster describe their environment, their talk of changing addresses and shifting perspectives resembles that of historians.
“I’ll show you the studio we recorded the album in,” Forster says. “With Up to Anything, we wanted it to sound as much like we do live. You only have the chance to make a rough first record once.”
“We had a really good time making the album,” says Harrison, standing near the locked and barred door, a basketball ring mounted above it. “We had a sleepover with our friends in the studio. We’d play basketball, go to Aldi.”
“It wasn’t the most efficient recording,” Forster says, bouncing a basketball towards me as we start a short game of two-on-one. “We went to lunch a lot.”
The Aldi store, about 50 metres from the studio in suburban Kelvin Grove, has a near emblematic importance to them. In addition to supplying the Cheezy Twists, Flying Power energy drinks and Chazoos noodles that fortified the band during their recording sessions, it, and many of its competitively priced off-brand items, feature heavily in their music video for their first single “Sometimes Accidentally”.
After buying some disappointing snacks, we walk to Harrison’s house. “Aldi, basketball and James’s: this is a very regular day for The Goon Sax,” Forster says.
Up to Anything doesn’t sound like teenagers. Forster and Harrison’s dry lyrics cover ground familiar to teenage poets and lyricists – falling in love, feeling like an outsider, communication problems – but they’re more interested in level-headed observation than hormonal angst. The lyric sheet accompanying the album reads as if 40-year-old versions of themselves had documented their teenage preoccupations. Their awkward bravery could only come from people able to trust each other and express themselves openly.
“In a song you don’t have a lot of time,” Forster says later, sitting out the back of Harrison’s house in Kelvin Grove. “You have to say things very clearly for them to come across. Which is good. In our songs there’s no time for ramble.”
It’s this sort of fresh, honest and simple approach that has served Forster and Harrison well as songwriters. The Goon Sax’s old-fashioned road of playing gigs, signing to a label, releasing a vinyl LP, getting rave reviews and cracking the charts is unfashionably alive here.
Harrison embodies a heartfelt conversational style responsible for the most enthusiastic responses at their live shows, as with the song “Telephone”:
Maybe some time I’ll grow my hair out long / And lose all the weight that I put on / I never feel very comfortable with my body
“Sometimes I think that it’s hard to describe your feelings without being really blatant about it,” he says slowly. “I find sometimes I can’t really put some things into words unless I’m really honest about it.”
“I think your songs are braver than mine,” Forster says to Harrison. “There are a couple of songs where what I’m talking about isn’t blatant. With James, I’ve always admired that he’ll say exactly what it is.”
Forster’s songs home in on minutiae. Inanimate objects, fleeting feelings and sensations become totemic, as in the song “Sweaty Hands” or “Up to Anything”, the opening lines of the album:
I’ve had the same pile of books / Next to my bed for months / I guess it’s too bad / You’ve been over more than once
It’s the sort of lyric that recalls Forster’s father, well known for his wry humour and literary style. And that is not the only similarity. I ask about the bands being alphabetical neighbours, for instance.
“That was definitely a coincidence,” Forster laughs. “When I was looking for our album review on Pitchfork, I typed in ‘The Go—’ and I was like, ‘Oh.’ That’s the first time I noticed it.”
I ask Forster to think of another band with two male singer-songwriters and a female drummer besides The Go-Betweens.
He smiles bashfully. “That is pretty bizarre, I guess. When James and I started the band it seemed like I was the only one writing songs, and then James started to write, and then we got Riley. It seems like it’s an unusual combination. There aren’t that many female drummers.”
“It’s definitely not on purpose,” Harrison says.
“It was in the back of my mind,” Forster says, “ ‘I don’t want to have a female drummer, because we don’t need that.’ But it didn’t really work out with anyone else. As soon as we had the first practice with Riley, I could tell this was the right thing to do.”
“I think also we’re about the same height,” Harrison says, grinning. “Grant [McLennan] was a bit shorter.”
That night, the band play the final show of their tour, at Trainspotters in Brisbane’s CBD, ringed by family, friends and ardent fans. It’s an atmosphere full of assurances and affection, a place where failure feels impossible. Blazing through the songs from the album, between-song banter blurs into friendly conversation as the show rattles towards a euphoric conclusion. As in Melbourne, the crowd’s response grows louder with each song until, gleaming with sweat and smiling widely, the band pace backstage, debating the merits of an encore.
Extended family and older audience members chat animatedly further back in the room, occasionally glancing at the empty stage. Around the band, there is sweaty enthusiasm and wide smiles. From the crowd, a chant builds: “One more song. One more song. One more song.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2016 as "Goon show".
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