The Goon Sax :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The three members of the Goon Sax bonded as Brisbane teenagers over post-punk classics by the Pastels and the Raincoats, forming their band originally as kind of a joke that might not last six months. Now, three albums in, the band has made a bold, surprising statement in Mirror II, an album that showcases three very different songwriting sensibilities and significantly expands the scrappy, jittery aesthetic that the Goon Sax has presented up to now. Two of the band’s members—Louis Forster and James Harrison—joined us to discuss their latest record, working with John Parish, their year in quarantine and how a trio of Aussie record collectors somehow didn’t know all that much about Louis’ dad’s band, the Go-Betweens. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: This seems like a really democratic kind of band, where all three of you write songs and you switch instruments. How did it evolve that way?

Louis Forster: I don’t think it was always like that. Jim and I always swapped between guitar and bass and both wrote songs. I think it just became more open at the time. When you’ve been playing together for a long time, you have a need to try new things and sometimes that’s new sounds and sometimes it’s playing new instruments. Riley started learning guitar. She wasn’t always doing that. It was natural when she started learning guitar that she would play guitar in this band. Jim also started playing a bunch of cello and jamming with people, and so he plays cello on our record.

AD: Who plays the saxophone?

Louis Forster: That was a friend of ours in Brisbane. Sadly not one of us…I wish I could say that one of us plays saxophone, but it’s not true.

AD: Can we assume that the person who is singing is the one who wrote the song or do you write things for each other?

Louis Forster: To a degree. I think it’s likely that the person singing the lead vocal wrote the song. Like Riley and I sing together on each other’s songs. “In the Stone” is written by me, but she sings on that. She wrote “Desire” and I sing on that. But mostly the main vocalist wrote the song, yeah.

AD: Would you write something from her viewpoint or vice versa?

Louis Forster: I think, you know, our songs are never necessarily from our own viewpoint. Even the songs that we write for ourselves come from a lot of different viewpoints. I don’t think we’d shy away from singing a song just because we wrote it from the perspective of another gender. I think that’s a constant in our music.

AD: I remember talking to Kim Gordon one time, and she said that occasionally Thurston would write a song from her viewpoint. I thought that was interesting.

Louis Forster: It’s a good thing to do. Writing and trying to represent yourself in a song can be kind of stifling, I think, when you’re trying to bring yourself across. Writing from someone else’s perspective even slightly can really open you up to say things about yourself that you wouldn’t dare to.

AD: I can imagine. “In the Stone” has what seems like a much bigger sound than the songs on your previous album. Have you been working with a larger palette of instruments and sounds?

Louis Forster: Yeah, that song was where we combined live drums and drum machines for the first time. We tried a lot of things for the first time on that song. That song’s got autotune on it. We were trying to make a vocal guitar solo. There’s a guitar solo that’s me singing through a distortion pedal and autotune, and we just tried stuff like that. That song was a really good entryway for us to explore a lot of things.

AD: It seems like the previous album was a really charming, scrappy punk, post-punk thing, and this is just bigger.

Louis Forster: Oh thanks. We’re Not Talking had much more of a post-punk influence. It’s funny actually. People have been saying that this album is post-punk. It’s funny hearing what other people think of things. I’ve heard a few people say this album seemed post-punk-y and to me the last one was when we were listening to all of that stuff.

AD: This one has almost a Phil Spector kind of hugeness to it. “In the Stone” has this great line in it. “Say it to my face before you write it on the wall.” What does that mean?

Louis Forster: That song and that line specifically, that was me trying to say, “Talk me about it before citing this as a whole truth.” Instead of stating: this is what’s going on. This is what our relationship is like. This is the way I view our relationship. It should be more flexible. It’s two people. It isn’t this totality. In a way, that lyric is someone else talking to me, because I have the tendency to do that, to overthink things and present them in this already formatted, decided-upon way, rather than being vulnerable in that process and wondering about something.

AD: That’s part of the culture now, where we’re all super ready to say things on Twitter or Instagram and present our viewpoint before we consult the other people who may be involved.

Louis Forster: Absolutely. Totally. We have this weird feeling that we should be convincing about things that we know so little about.

AD: I was trying to figure out what language you were speaking in “Bathwater” and I guess it’s German.

Louis Forster: It’s German, yeah.

AD: And you live in Berlin now?

Louis Forster: No, I lived in Berlin in 2017. After we recorded We’re Not Talking, we did a tour in Europe, and I stayed in Berlin afterwards.

AD: That’s a big change from Brisbane to Berlin.

Louis Forster: Yeah, it was a really big change. I mean, I’d spent time in Germany growing up. Not in Berlin. My family’s from down south in Bavaria, a very different part of Germany. Very Catholic. Very Southern. But I spent two months every two years in Germany when I was growing up. I spoke the language and was familiar with it to a degree.

AD: And “Psychic” I was thinking that was one of Riley’s but it’s not. It’s got a very retro synth pop sound with these giant keyboards and reverbed drums. Were you thinking about specific references there? I always think of the Cure when I hear those kinds of synths, but maybe there’s a more modern touchpoint?

Louis Forster: I made a playlist of the things we were listening to at the time the other day because I felt that I had answered this question really badly. Royal Trux was a massive influence on the guitar sound. In terms of the familiarity of the melody along with the discordance. Royal Trux was a big influence.

AD: That’s an unruly band.

Louis Forster: Yeah, totally. The Stooges as well, but also disco stuff.

AD: Just the way the drums sound, there’s something very booming and precise about them.

Louis Forster: …and I think Jesus & Mary Chain was probably a touchstone for those huge metric reverb-y drums that feel like metal tent poles in this landscape.

AD: Yeah, the Phil Collins effect. James, your songs have a whole different feel to them. They’re whimsical and lighter and more surreal. Can you tell me about where you come from in terms of influences?

James Harrison: I suppose I just like Jandek and Syd Barrett in my own songwriting. Those outsider folky artists felt relatable to me. I guess I was just very much encouraged to work on that sound of my songs. Which was cool. I just would play weirdly and then refine it more, so that it would sound a bit better.

Louis Forster: You made a lot of really strange chords. Learning your songs on this album was really fun because I wasn’t aware of the root notes or the chords you were playing. I had no idea. So, I just played things along. You respond to it differently when you’re just going by ear and not, oh this is an A, this is a D, this is a G. I really liked that.

James Harrison: Yeah, I remember that.

AD: You have a song about carpentry. Have you ever done that as a job, laying carpets?

James Harrison: No. It never has been. No, I grew up in a house which didn’t have carpets except in one room and they feel very safe to me. Soft and nice. Yeah. So, I like them.

AD: Riley’s not here, but is it possible to talk about where she comes from as a songwriter and what some of her touch points are?

Louis Forster: I think Riley brought a lot of noise music into this album. She got us really into Les Rallizes Dénudés and Keiji Haino, Fushitsusha and things like that. And I think what Riley really understands that this repetition of chord changes in songs like “Tag,” she’s really good at creating meaning and space. They’re these very classic changes—like Les Rallizes Dénudés songs, they’re very simple and they sit on these very simple bass lines—but then there are so many dynamics in the use of noise and prettiness. I think Riley understands that. Her songwriting was also influenced by artists like Kylie and Dannii Minogue. There’s a lot of 1990s pop music she’s really into.

AD: I was hearing a certain amount of 4AD.

Louis Forster: Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil were definitely a big reference point.

AD: Is Mirror, the title, a Velvet Underground reference?

James Harrison: No, I’m really into that song though.

AD: Where did it come from?

Louis Forster: Basically, Riley had a misunderstanding with somebody when she was on tour in Japan with Soot, Riley and James’ other band. She thought that someone was talking about an album called Mirror, so she decided that she was going to make an album called Mirror II. But the album they were talking about wasn’t called Mirror. It was called Moonlight, and we thought that was funny. It took on a lot of meaning for us over time. It was supposed to be the subconscious and supernatural space reflected back into our reality. It’s like a mirror of that second world coming back to us. But it’s also the fact that our album is a sequel to another album that doesn’t exist.

AD: I know you all lived together in one house while you were making the album, but in general, you do not live very close to one another. How does that affect how you all work together? When you started out, you were in high school together and probably saw each other all the time.

Louis Forster: I think that’s always how we’ve made music together. It’s pretty constant. It’s not in sectioned-off bits of time. It’s more like going into each others’ rooms at night and jamming on an idea for hours, just very slowly. And I think living together made it possible to try every single idea. And what’s on the record is really only…it feels like only about 3% of what we were working on. Because we had so much space because we lived together. We even played with our housemates. They would play with us. We were just jamming a chord progression over for two hours or something and, in that way, we were able to really understand the music, which was good. But we don’t live together anymore. We just did that while we were making the record. Riley moved to London a week ago. Jim and I are going over in ten days.

James Harrison: It was nice to be really accessible to each other during that period. To have a place where we could do stuff all the time. We had a practice room that we could all make it to.

Louis Forster: It felt like the album really started to grow out of that house. It felt pretty connected to that space. We were coming in and out of each other’s rooms all the time, and you would hear shit through the walls. You kind of learned this language from each other.

AD: What was it like working with John Parish?

Louis Forster: It was fantastic. It was the best experience of letting anyone into our music that I’ve ever had, that’s for sure. He really helped us…he kind of realized what we were trying to do and helped us experiment with that and never tried to push anything. He didn’t have any agendas for our music. He wanted it to be the most itself that it could be.

AD: That’s interesting. I just spoke to another artist who had John Parish produce his album, and he’s done so many different things that I asked, well, what does John Parish do, what is the John Parish part of the music? And he said, you know what, he has a really clear eye for seeing what you’re trying to do and making it better.

Louis Forster: That’s exactly why we wanted to work with him because the records he’s produced don’t have one sound. You can’t pin it down to like, this is what he does. It’s so broad. He makes everything so itself. He’s kind of invisible in what he does, which is amazing.

James Harrison: His production definitely gave me such a calmness. Everything we recorded was produced in such a way to sound like it fits right. It was really great.

AD: Did he bring anything cool in? I understand he has all kinds of instruments in that studio.

Louis Forster: Yeah, he had a beautiful little acoustic guitar that I loved. I don’t know. There was a lot of really fun gear. It’s not just John. It’s Geoff [Barrow] from Beak and Portishead as well. So, he’s got a ridiculous synth collection. There was a point when I thought, as we were making the record, well I don’t want this to sound like us fucking around with a synth collection, because we got so excited about it.

AD: How do you see this album as it relates to the other two you’ve done?

James Harrison: I don’t have an answer, but off the top of my head, I feel like it’s a more expansive album than all the others, the other two that we did. I felt like we could get even the weirder sides of our musical tastes into it, too, which is kind of nice. I suppose it feels a bit less one-dimensional. It feels like it’s got so many dimensions.

Louis Forster: It felt like when we were making our first record a little bit. We came back to the music that we had been listening to while making the first album, things like the Pastels and Galaxie 500 and Dick Diver. I felt like we were pushing our sound into pretty far out directions and then kind of understanding it back through our earlier references. Even starting to play some of our older songs again was really important. I want it to exist on its own, but I feel like it also exists in the context of those two.

James Harrison: I think we’re more capable of sounding closer to what we want. We’re able to try things that are closer to the productional sound of some sounds that influenced us earlier on, like the Pastels and stuff. I felt a bit more capable.

AD: Does it set you on a path to do something different in the future?

Louis Forster: Yeah, I think it always will. I think that’s something that we’ll always do. I don’t think we’d want to make an album if it didn’t feel like an experiment or it didn’t feel like we were proving something to ourselves that we didn’t know we could do. I think this album probably made us more confident, in some ways, that we would get closer to things sonically that we were referencing. I think also as songwriters, that we could step out of just things that maybe seemed more surface-level relatable to what we were doing. We could shoot for ideas outside our immediate experience and have the confidence that they could exist in our writing. I think that’s something that we’ll probably keep exploring.

AD: Were there specific moments in songs or lines or melodies that you were really excited about?

Louis Forster: Yeah, definitely. I think the outros to both “Till Dawn” and “Caterpillars” turned out really well. Those changed a lot in the studio, and we added a lot of synths to them. I knew we wanted them to kind of elevate and go up and out, but we weren’t fully sure exactly how that was going to happen. But I feel that we really got there, and I’m really proud of those two moments. Those two pieces felt like connected worlds in our album, these two synthy, soaring outros that rise. I felt like we got there. Lyrically, I guess for me, a massive breakthrough was, all this stuff about the vampire in “In the Stone,” going into that kind of imagery. That song started out as a murder ballad. I was scared to write something like that. And even though I stripped it quite far back and put it in a context where it’s not a murder ballad anymore, I think using that imagery was exciting for me.

James Harrison: I was really impressed by some of the verses in the songs. I felt that Louis was being very earnest and really lovely in some of the songs like “Till Dawn,” I was like, “wow, this is really nice.” So that’s one thing I thought of that was pretty awesome.

Louis Forster: I think my favorite line of yours, James, is in “Temples.” “A bit too cozy for eternity to give me a gift.” I love that lyric. It really excited me. I remember when you wrote that, I was like, “Yeah!”

James Harrison: I was impressed by the openness that Louis showed. And also by Riley being so confident in her songs.

AD: How did the band get started? You were really young, I think.

Louis Forster: Yeah, Jim and I met because we were playing in another band. A friend of us introduced us. I was 13 and Jim would have just turned 15. We were really small. We started playing in 2013 and Riley joined in 2014.

This band was such a joke band when we started. It felt far less serious than the other band we’d been playing in. This band was supposed to be stupid and fun and not really mean much. It’s still really funny to me that it got so serious, and we’re still doing it. I didn’t think it would last six months. I just wanted to play one or two shows and record something. I really wanted to record something. That was important.

AD: It seems like you broke out in America the year before the pandemic hit, and you’ve had this long hold on your career. Now things are opening up again and you’ve got this new album. How did the pandemic affect what you’re doing and what you’ll be doing in the future?

Louis Forster: It was pretty massive. We were planning to do all the videos and photo shoots for this album in New York last April. And then it kind of happened gradually over time in Brisbane. We were working with directors in Milan and Philly over Zoom. It was a totally different process. I think we would have just gone and knocked them out over a couple of weeks, and it would have been this very condensed thing. On the one hand, it was a lot more DIY, because we had a team of friends and stuff here that we were making these videos with and then directed on Zoom. It totally affected the way our album even looks. I can’t really say at this point that I wish it had been different, because there was a lot of magic that happened out of this weird, fucking shoddy process.

James Harrison: It felt like there’s always a lot of us talking. We had a lot of time to talk about music videos and prepare for them because of COVID. It felt like an extension of what we always do: talking about things, waiting for them to happen, trying to get them going and stuff. It just felt like what always happens.

Louis Forster: I think it would have been funny if we’d gone to America and done more structured videos and worked with teams of people we don’t know. This felt like it was very self-motivated and DIY at home. Maybe it’s more honest than if we’d gone and done them over there.

AD: Well, you’ll probably get another chance to do that slick New York thing. You’ll get to see whether it works better or worse.

Louis Forster: Yeah.

AD: I noticed in your press this time, there’s no mention of who your dad is. (He is Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens.) Are you trying to get away from that?

Louis Forster: I don’t think we ever mentioned in our press releases on our end. It was always something that other people chose to talk about or not talk about. I don’t think anything’s changed in the way we try to present the band. We never wanted to use it as something that would garner any interest. Whether people wanted to write about that, especially early on. I think I was kind of surprised by it, which may sound weird. I just had no gauge for it. I was like 16. I didn’t think anyone would care.

AD: That’s a beloved band, though.

Louis Forster: Yeah, I think I’ve only realized that recently. As a teenager, I didn’t have much of an awareness of that.

AD: Do you ever talk to him about writing and making music?

Louis Forster: Yeah, the house that I grew up in always had a lot of music, and everyone was always playing. My mom plays music. My sister plays music. All four of us play music in the house, and everyone would talk about what they were doing in an immediate, practical way. I find it hard to have very open, philosophical discussions about music. It seems very personal.

AD: What will you be doing next? Will there be a tour? Is that possible now?

Louis Forster: Yeah, we’re doing some shows in the U.K at the moment and hopefully a couple in Europe and hopefully some things in the states as well. We’re looking. I’m always confused about what’s locked in and what we’re supposed to say, but we’re talking about doing a bunch of shows.

AD: I think everyone understands that nothing is locked in anymore and may never be again.

Louis Forster: Yeah, we’re just crossing our fingers I guess. It’s been a long time that we’ve not been playing very much. Even before the pandemic, we spent 2019 writing. We might have played five shows all year. Which would be the least shows since the band started. In 2020, we played even less. So, it’s been really strange. Playing always seemed like the central part of what we did, as much as making albums.

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