Sunbeam Sound Machine talks escapism, religion and politics
Melbourne producer and multi-instrumentalist Nick Sowersby amassed critical acclaim for his debut album Wanderer in 2014. Five years later, after several scrapped attempts, he’s released a stellar follow-up in Goodness Gracious.
I should probably mention that earlier today I caught up with one of the publicists from your record label and we were doing a bit of day-drinking, so I’d just like to apologise right off the bat if the interview takes on a slightly less structured format than normal.
(Laughs) No, that’s fine. That’s encouraged (laughs).
Well congratulations on your new album, Goodness Gracious. I’ve really been enjoying it.
I understand that you took a different approach to this one, chopping up guitar loops and the like. Did you set out with that as your intention, or did you sort of stumble upon that idea?
Ah, sort of stumbled upon it. It was sort of, um… I say chopped up, it’s all still done within a loop pedal. I just figured out a way of doing it that if I played a phrase it would just take random snatches of it. And so that was a way to I guess randomise the process and come up with loops that, you know, I couldn’t repeat or you know, couldn’t play again, because it’s sort of – lots of things laid on top of each other, so coming up with things like that where you sort of don’t know what it’s going to be like, once you find something you like, it sort of pushes you in a bit of a different direction. Because you couldn’t plan it. So yeah. It’s just a different way of doing things.
I find it interesting that you said you record with loop pedals. I’m assuming that’s not the only guitar pedal that you’re using when you’re recording?
No, there’s a few. I use the loop pedal I guess, because some of the songs are built on loops, so it’s using that but I use it for songwriting a lot. But yeah, there’s ah, delay and reverb and vibrato, and pitch shifter pedals as well. Among other things.
So you’d rather do that as you’re recording, rather than in post-production?
Yeah, I think I like to limit my options. I think, you know, if you – I definitely use some effects like plug-ins and that sort of thing, but I always think, I don’t want to sit there all day, like, trying to find exactly the right delay or the right whatever else distortion or something. I just think, if I limit myself to what I’ve got with my pedals, it’s going to be better. I’m just going to stay focused.
In a 2014 interview you said that most of your songs had about 10 or 15 guitar tracks.
Is that true of your newer output as well?
No, not at all. This one’s a lot more stripped back. I think there was a couple of songs from the last one – I record in Logic, and there was a couple from the last one that probably ended up with like, 60 tracks or something like that. I think the most I got to with this one was like, 30, from memory. Yeah, some of them from the first album had 10, 15 guitar tracks, I’d say some of them from this one wouldn’t have had more than 10 or 15 in total. So it’s definitely, you know, it’s still pretty effects-heavy and I do still love to layer things, but I tried to be a lot more selective this time and put things in for a reason. Don’t just – you know, I sort of would double things to try and make them have more impact, but sometimes it kind of has the opposite effect. It just washes things out. So I thought, I’ll just try and record one, with more impact this time.
So when you were doing multiple guitar tracks, was there a lot of copy and paste going on, or were you manually recording each track?
Ah, yeah, manually. I like to do it that way, I like to double things, but I sort of – I don’t mind if it sounds like there is multiple of them playing. Like, I don’t try and get them exact. I sort of like, they’re sort of – going all, going along and you know, if you hit one of them a bit harder, say on the left, then that sort of sticks its head up for a second, and maybe the other one sticks its head out here and there. I sort of don’t mind that happening.
How important are deadlines in creating art?
Um, I definitely pushed a few deadlines back with this one (laughs). Self-imposed. No one else was trying to put them on me, but, um…
Would you say that deadlines are helpful for you, or do you find them more of a hindrance? A lot of uni students, for example, they’ll leave writing their essay until the night before it’s due.
Yep, that was more my style at uni (laughs). I sort of feel like, ah, it is good to give yourself some sort of deadline, but I find in the end they don’t have that much effect on me and things sort of happen at the pace they will anyway, with music. But I definitely find every now and then if I’ve got a few songs sort of half-finished, every now and then I play solo, so if I book in a solo show, that really helps me to get all the lyrics finished, sort of figure out the structure and that sort of thing, because it’s like, ah, I’ll embarrass myself in public if these songs aren’t finished (laughs) so that can be a really powerful motivator. But in terms of getting a record finished, I gave myself a lot of deadlines for this one. Some of them were a hindrance, like, I did rush into it to begin with, and in the end I just said, “Alright, there’s no deadline. Just a vague prediction of when I might be finished.”
People talk a fair bit about the pressure of recording the second album. Did you experience any sort of pressure along those lines? I note that in the press release it says that you may have scrapped a couple of albums along the way.
Yeah, yeah, I scrapped a lot of – I knew, it was sort of, probably three quarters finished with an album and then got rid of most of it. But, yeah, I guess that just felt like it wasn’t coming along too strongly so I thought I’d just start again. A couple of the songs came back, and I sort of redid them, but yeah, it was, it was difficult. I don’t know if that’s because of it being the second album or because you know, the cliché it’s like, “Oh, you’ve got your whole life to write your first album,” but I’d already put out a couple of EPs before that one so that wasn’t really true. But yeah, I guess I was really happy with the first one. And it got a really nice response from people, sort of people reached out saying it meant a lot to them, so I do feel pressure to make something good enough to follow that up for people, and also having a label like Dot Dash putting my stuff out, there’s pressure to do something really good. Not from them, just from within, I guess, like, they work hard on getting my music out into the world and I really respect them, so I want to make something that I feel is worthy of that. But ultimately it just sort of does come from wanting to make something that I can really get behind. That’s the sort of main pressure, I guess.
You mentioned deadlines can be handy in regards to live shows. Do you have any tricks that you might be able to share for remembering new lyrics?
Um, no, I forget them all the time. I think the trick is just don’t react to the fact that you forgot. Generally, usually you’re the only one who notices (laughs). So just remain confident (laughs). I still forget old lyrics, as well. There’s even one song that I’ve got, it’s called “Getting Young”. And one point of the song is just counting numbers backwards, and me and Sophie, who does backing vocals live for Sunbeam, manage to screw that one up all the time (laughs). It is literally just counting backwards by one. By years (laughs). And somehow we always say them out of order. So, yep, just, ah, remain confident (laughs).
Stu Mackenzie of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard mixed your first album. What was that experience like and why did you decide to mix your second album by yourself?
That experience was really cool and I think the thing I felt with that album was, I’d recorded it and then I would send it to him to mix. And the songs would come back sounding really different. And I really liked that about the first album, I think it made it better. But with this one, I sort of had a more solid idea of how I wanted things to sound. Rather than just going, “Alright. I’ve recorded, I’ll just give this to someone else and see what they do with it.” I sort of knew what I wanted and I’d built up my skills a little bit in the intervening years, so yeah, I just thought, “Oh, I’ll give it a shot.” Because it’s something I want to do more of and do for other people, and I went to RMIT and studied their sound production course a couple of years ago, to build up my skills and one of the teachers there recommended that I did it myself as well. He said, “You can pay someone a bunch of money and maybe it’ll come back and you still won’t like it, or you can just spend as long as it takes doing it yourself,” and so I guess that was the theory I took. I was like, “I can just spend ages mixing it if I need to.” And I kind of did in the end, just to get the results I wanted. But there’s definitely benefits to both. It means you spend a lot of time with your songs if you record them yourself and then mix them yourself. You live in that world for a long time.
The last 5% of (mixing) a song is the most agonising but it’s also the bit that probably nobody will actually notice.
For sure. And how do you know when a mix is actually complete?
That’s when deadlines come in handy, actually. Mixing deadlines are good. Because the last 5% of a song is the most agonising but it’s also the bit that probably nobody will actually notice (laughs). You know, you’re turning the snare up and down by a couple of dB or changing the reverb times on things slightly and eventually it gets to the point where you go, “Ah, this isn’t actually affecting the song.” You’ve got to try and hear it all as one big thing, not millions of tiny pieces.
You’ve described this album as 11 songs that document a period of change, about what we look to for guidance, comfort and stability in uncertain times. So what do you look to in uncertain times? Many people seek refuge in say, religion or spiritualism. I’m wondering if you’d be along the same lines, or would it be more escapism or, I don’t know, Netflix?
(Laughs) Yeah. Escapism’s always the most appealing option, but yeah, no, I don’t consider myself a religious person. That’s not part of it. Um, I guess family and friends is a big one. Making music is a huge one. Um, what else? Reading books. Just going for a long walk (laughs). It depends on the size of the issue. But I think a lot of it on the album was about just the, ah, practicing patience, allowing the passing of time, and just being kind to yourself.
It’s definitely time that a bit of compassion took over, and it was less about party politics and more about actually running the joint with a bit of vision.
On the topic of uncertain times, we have a federal election coming up here in Australia. How do you see it playing out?
Oh, look. If there’s any sense in the country, Scott Morrison won’t be Prime Minister after the election. That’s how I feel. Ah, Bill Shorten, I’m interested to see how he’ll go, I think I would feel better with him as Prime Minister, but it just seems like everybody’s going to be great at it until they’re actually in the hot seat. And then the pressure’s sort of – tears it all apart.
And then they’re replaced in a leadership spill the following week.
Yeah, exactly. Like, how long would he even be Prime Minister? Would either of them even be Prime Minister for long if they win? But, yeah, it’s definitely time that a bit of compassion took over, and it was less about party politics and more about actually running the joint with a bit of vision (laughs).
If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Hmm. Let’s see. I think, ah, Michel Gondry is one that comes to mind. He makes amazing video clips. So I’d love to collaborate with him on that. Ah, yeah, that’s the one that most obviously comes to mind. So I’ll say either he makes a video clip for my music, or I make music for something he made. But probably the first option. I’d love to see how he interpreted something I’d made.