Wednesday, 24 October 2012
'I wanted the song to get across that feeling of knowing something is true' A Q&A with Josh Meadows from the Sugargliders
I have a box where I keep all my favourite and most precious 7" singles. In the box, very near the front is a Sarah Records test pressing of The Sugargliders 'Ahprahran'. A collection of(though as we will see, not a best of) Sugargliders songs has recently been realised on Matinee records. Brilldream was lucky enough to do a Q&A with Josh from the band
Brilldream: How did the best of ‘A Nest with a View’ come about?
Josh: For close to two decades Joel and I have been opposed to the idea of a Sugargliders ‘best of’. As far as we were concerned the ten 7” singles that came out in the early ’90s and the compilation Sarah Records issued in 1994 were the original artefacts and there would be no re-packaging and re-issuing. Several years ago Mike Babb from Drive-In and Microindie tried to get us to come around to the idea of a retrospective, but we stubbornly resisted. We’re 7” purists, we told ourselves. Then last year Scott Thurling from Popboomerang gently pointed out to us that the internet contained lots of Sugargliders material – bootlegs, dodgy live recordings, incorrect historical data – but our precious artefacts were as rare as hen’s teeth. He convinced us it was time to make the best Sugargliders material available widely again. The album is out through Popboomerang in Australia and Matinee in the USA.
Brilldream: With a band such as The Sugargliders, there are bound to be some fans favourites left off the CD. Is that frustrating?
Josh: ‘A Nest with a View’ isn’t a complete Sugargliders collection. We tried to pick 20 representative songs from across the band’s four-year recording history and at the same time leave a good number of exclusive tracks for people who’ve got the original 7”s, so there might be a few favourites missing, but I reckon most of the good songs are there. I hope people aren’t frustrated. I think the best ’gliders song not on the album is probably ‘Strong’.
Brilldream:Is it awkward releasing songs with such honest and raw lyrical themes?
Josh: Joel and I were teenagers when we started writing and recording as the Sugargliders. We were interested in girls. We were reading lots of great books. We were getting angry about property developers buying up blocks of beautiful bushland and bulldozing them to make way for boxy new houses on Melbourne’s outer eastern fringe, where we grew up. We felt disconnected and unrepresented by the men and women who were supposed to represent us in the political process. We were excited about North Melbourne Football Club finally fielding a young and talented side that was playing dazzling football. It seemed completely natural that all these concerns and preoccupations found their way into our songs. I realise we came across as rather artless and impossibly naïve. I think we were aware of this at the time. But I think we thought it was worth it. Being considered to be embarrassingly innocent is a small price to pay for being truthful about the world you live in.
Brilldream:Are the songs as autobiographical as they seem?
Josh: We tried to be honest about what we saw around us, but of course the songs aren’t always about things that happened to the two of us personally.
Brilldream:My favourite Sugargliders song, like many others, is Ahprahran. Could you tell us a little about what the song is about?
Josh: My brother was doing a sculpture course at art school in Prahran, which is an inner suburb of Melbourne. In 1992 he became president of the Prahran student union. It was a fun and demanding time for Joel, dipping his toe into the whirling eddy that is student politics. The art school was in the process of being swallowed up by the giant Swinburne University and Joel and his comrades were fighting hard for Prahran students to retain their rights and identity under the new regime. I think there were plenty of ‘one step forward and two steps back’ moments. Plenty of ‘Ah, Prahran!’ moments. It struck me that there being ‘something in the striving that is worth holding onto’ can be true in love too. Not that we were saying ‘aim low’ – in politics or relationships – but rather that the destination isn’t everything. Who was it that said, ‘to travel hopefully is better than to arrive’? I also wanted the song to get across that feeling of knowing something is true, intuitively, without having any real evidence that it is the case. The world we live in is so rational, so logical, yet so many of the decisions we make about how we behave and what we say are governed by subconscious promptings and intuition. I find that fascinating and a little bit unnerving too.
Brilldream:What were your musical influences whilst putting The Sugargliders together? Are they still as influential to you today?
Josh: It’s hard to know how far to go back when talking about musical influences, isn’t it? When we were little boys our Mum and Dad used to listen to James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell and lots of other melodic pop music from the early ’70s. A good friend of our family, who lived in the same street as us, had every Beatles album. I can remember spending many hours at his place listening to all those records. When Joel and I discovered top 40 radio we got into Adam & the Ants, Thompson Twins, Human League, Haircut 100, ABC, Scritti Politti, I’m Talking and Prefab Sprout. Joel liked Kate Bush more than me. I liked Sade more than him. By the time we started writing the songs that became Sugargliders songs we were devotees of the Smiths, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, Jonathan Richman, Billy Bragg, the Housemartins, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. Immediately post-Sugargliders we got pretty heavily into Cardinal, the Auteurs, High Llamas, Scud Mountain Boys, Blake Babies and Juliana Hatfield. More recently we’ve been keen on Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, Stars, Vampire Weekend’s first album, Sally Seltmann’s ‘Heart that’s pounding’ and Midlake’s ‘Van Occupanther’ (but I hate their prog rock album from 2009).
Brilldream:What made you want to create music? Is it something that's always been inside you?
Josh: Our Dad was a musician and he was from a very musical family, so creating music always seemed like a possibility to us. I don’t remember ever making a deliberate choice about it.
Brilldream: What was it like to be part of the whole Sarah records scene? One which is so missed, loved and admired?
Josh: Joel and I were fans of the label and several of the bands – especially the Field Mice, the Orchids and Another Sunny Day – before we signed to Sarah, so it was a huge thrill for us when we received that phone call from Clare saying she and Matt liked ‘Letter from a lifeboat’ and wanted to release it. Being in Australia I guess we weren’t part of the Sarah scene in the same way as the English bands were and, although we liked their music, we never met or played a gig with the other Australian band on the label, Sydney-based Even As We Speak. The time when we most felt part of the Sarah Records scene was when we toured England in November and December 1992. Matt and Clare went above and beyond a label’s usual role by helping find gigs for us (we didn’t have a manager or agent), many of which were with other Sarah bands. While we were in England we played with Secret Shine (in London), Brighter (London), Blueboy (London and Reading), Boyracer (Leeds) and Heavenly (Oxford). We also did gigs in Sheffield and Bristol with non-Sarah bands. But, even though we were on the other side of the world, we always felt very proud of being on Sarah. We admired Sarah’s unashamed feminist and socialist stance, just as we loved the label’s music and aesthetic. It was – and still is – a rare and wonderful thing: a record company that had anti-capitalist principles and didn’t want to be part of the music industry!
Brilldream: What are you favourite memories about being a Sugarglider?
Josh: That England tour in 1992 was a real highlight. The gig that stands out most clearly in my memory was a show we did with Blueboy at the Rising Sun Institute in Reading. The audience sat cross-legged on the floor and were attentive to every note and every lyric. We played standing up, but when it was Blueboy’s turn they performed seated on barstools! I hadn’t realised how good Blueboy was until that night. It was the perfect venue to see and hear them display their beautiful wares. I also have very fond memories of some of the gigs we played at the Perseverance Hotel in Melbourne. This was another small venue, not much bigger than a loungeroom really, that we used to play at quite a lot in the early years of the band. Some of our songs – I’m thinking of songs like ‘Coffee’ from our second 7” for Summershine – never quite worked on vinyl but they were made for the back room at the Perse.
Brilldream:Have people contacted you about the Sarah film/book projects that are currently under construction?
Josh: We have been contacted for the film, but not the book.
Brilldream: Why did the band break up?
Josh: By early 1994 we were starting to feel the Sugargliders had run its course. We hated being pigeonholed as a strummy, acoustic duo when our music was attempting to be much more than that. A lot of the songs we were writing called for a fuller live treatment too, so we decided to close the Sugargliders chapter and open a new one called the Steinbecks. There was no bad blood between Joel and me and Robert Cooper, who played bass in later-period Sugargliders, or any of the labels we made records for.
Brilldream: Do you plan to tour as The Sugargliders? Or will you continue under the Steinbecks banner?
Josh: No, we won’t be touring as the Sugargliders, but we continue to play gigs as the Steinbecks, mostly in Melbourne and country Victoria. The current incarnation of the band is Joel and me with Joseph Bromley on drums and Matthew Sigley (Earthmen, Daytime Frequency) on keys and bass. We will be launching ‘A Nest with a View’ at a gig in Melbourne on 2 November, with a supporting cast of many ‘friends of the Sugargliders’.
Brilldream:Finally, what is your favourite record, book and cheese?
Josh: ‘Meat is Murder’ by the Smiths, ‘Loon Lake’ by E.L. Doctorow and Red Leicester.
With thanks to Jimmy from Matinee records