Louis Forster was watching the 1977 Japanese horror flick House when he got an idea. Inspired by the film’s main characters who were named after their primary personality traits — a woman who constantly adjusts her makeup is dubbed Gorgeous, another who loves music is called Melody — Forster did the same for his bandmates James Harrison and Riley Jones, who perform with him as The Goon Sax. Forster christened Harrison as Lazy, Jones as Busy and himself as Bendy.
“I think James is the most laid-back guy,” Forster says. “James isn’t laying back, he’s James Horizontal Harrison.”
“I guess I’m a bit lazy,” Harrison replies, his voice a sonic manifestation of a shrug. “But I reckon there are other people in the band who do just as silly things.”
Since their 2016 debut, Up To Anything, the Brisbane indie-pop-meets-post-punk trio have navigated many a descriptor — “as clever as they are sad,” “self-deprecating but never maudlin,” “endearingly simple” — though “silly” never seemed to lead the charge. The Goon Sax, who formed in 2013 as a duo of Harrison and Forster, who is the son of Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens fame (Jones joined in 2014 after just a few months of drum lessons), have a knack for framing small moments as even smaller. Up To Anything, released when the band members were 16 and 17 years old, languidly details the intimacies of teen life laced with a depressive yearning — “I want people to think about me,” Forster sings on the album’s title track.
Though just a few years older, The Goon Sax explore new territory on their sophomore effort, We’re Not Talking, out now: anxiety. The LP skews, at times, frenetic, romantic, wistful, itchy. On “Love Lost,” a Harrison-led track that features strings and castanets, he laments, “I’ve got problems that I don’t know how to deal with / and I’ve got issues that I don’t want to be seen with.” Elsewhere, Jones coos, “I’ll miss the sadness / that’s the only thing that I have ever known” on “Strange Light,” an ode to Brisbane and the mistakes made there.
On We’re Not Talking, all three members of the Goon Sax contributed to vocal and instrumental composition, a diversion from Harrison and Forster’s primary songwriting on Up To Anything. Live, they’ll swap instruments, with Jones occasionally taking over guitar and Forster hopping on drums, each member a gear in a steadily churning machine, constantly bracing for impact.
“We’re expecting the worst at all times,” Forster jokes.
“Maybe the airplane isn’t crashing just yet,” Jones replies, “but there’s this feeling that it might crash.”
VMP: How did the songwriting dynamic change on We’re Not Talking?
Louis Forster: I don’t reckon it was a conscious choice that we were going to work on stuff differently. It just kind of happened that way that Riley got more comfortable singing. On the first record, I wrote a few more songs than James and this time James is writing lots of songs really quick. We all have more input on each other’s songs.
How does the critique process work when you’re editing each other’s work?
Riley Jones: We didn’t really critique each other. I don’t think I ever felt the need to. We were a bit like, “Yeah, right on. We've got another song. Sick,” which is lucky.
LF: I don’t think it was, “I like this song, but change those lyrics and take out this bit, and then it’ll be good.” I don’t think that kind of thing ever happens. It was having more input on the structure on each other’s songs or as we’re practicing, things not being so concrete immediately when we start playing a song and it changing a lot. Some of [the songs] we were playing for two years before we recorded them. Over that time, they were probably pretty unrecognizable from the original state.
It’s always fun to map the trajectory of certain songs: I had this feeling one time, now it’s this totally different living thing.
RJ: It is weird how it becomes its own thing so quickly.
LF: Then once you record it, you kind of feel like it’s being held in a permanent state, which I hate. Sometimes I don’t think music should be recorded because it keeps changing after that. All the songs are still changing to me because we’re playing them differently, playing them faster or slower or with different people singing. Recording something gives it almost a fake permanent state.
RJ: But it’s just a record. Just a record of what it sounded like.
But someone might pull up Spotify and that’s the only context they have for the songs versus someone who sees you play live a lot.
LF: I think it’s if you play it differently to the way it’s recorded, it seems like you’ve changed it.
NPR mentioned something keen when they wrote that many songs lack earnestness when it comes to love. Do you think you have that earnestness? What does it take to truly be sincere in music?
LF: I think it’s sincere. It's funny to look back on those songs now that we’ve recorded them and wrote them quite a while ago. I’m completely sure that every single thing that we said is sincere and true. That’s definitely something I can’t [find] fault in.
What are those moments that inspire you to write?
LF: I often feel like I don't necessarily write about things as they happen. I always write about things that have happened some time later. It’s just events and feelings that get edited down in lyrics. Observations on things. There was this song I wrote to try and remember where I grew up before moving away because I wanted to specifically remember that. It was almost a mental note.
What song was that?
LF: Some parts of “Strange Light.” Riley wrote a lot of those lyrics, too. It originally had a whole bunch of other lyrics, but that was the original purpose of those songs.
How much does time and place play into the way that you write lyrics?
James Harrison: Maybe time and place plays a big part in it because when I write, something’s happened and I go back home and maybe I have a bit to drink. I like a lot of Brisbane bands and some of them make my music sound like other Brisbane bands.
LF: I think this record is very time and place to me. Brisbane in 2015, 2016, early 2017. I think very much in terms of years.
What was going on in your lives in Brisbane in 2015?
LF: I was in grade 11, Riley and James would’ve been in grade 12. It was a pretty emotionally confusing time. For me, it was about being in love for the first time and being so overwhelmed by that.
JH: I was in grade 12 and it was confusing and a bit crush-y.
LF: To me, this record is a lot about anxiety. The last record, the first one, I remember thinking it sounded really depressed and this one sounds more anxious than depressed.
You’re running through all the emotions.
JH: I think anxiousness is a big part of it.
LF: You have to get focused on a certain thing. At the moment, I’m mostly writing about fear and [when] you change those topics or those motivations, what feelings turn into writing? You still feel all the other things, but what point of your thinking is going into a song?
Even the way the record turned out, sonically, it’s a bit more upbeat. It translates into a more anxious sound.
RJ: It’s rapid and I was just thinking about rhythms and trying to make the rhythms more interesting on this one. I’m hoping our next record won’t sound like anxiety.
What are you hoping it sounds like?
RJ: Just a bit more cosmic.
JH: Being cosmic would be way better.
RJ: Who knows if it’s possible not to make something as a product of negativity or angst. It might not be possible. Maybe it’s possible but we won’t like it.
Because there is this notion that from pain comes great art.
RJ: It might come from early blues musicians who write the most painful, heartbreaking, beautiful music. Maybe we’ve got to get more painful or something. Maybe it’s not enough.
JH: I don’t think it’s enough.
LF: I think songs can come from feeling really good as well. A lot of good music comes from feeling great. Maybe it’s more of an idea that comes from pain because a lot of the time when people feel really good, they’re too caught up in that to want to write about it.
Does writing get you any closer to clarity over the things you write about?
LF: To some degree. Sometimes it doesn’t at all. It almost makes it more confusing and more frustrating because music and what you do with it is limited. It’s hard to turn something into a couple of sounds and words.
RJ: I think with this record we thought we could do that. To me, it seemed like we could do that by being as completely honest as possible. We would hear so much music that didn’t feel honest and really valued when it did. I don’t know if I would have the same approach now. Definitely I’d like to stay honest always, but I’d also like to be more playful with it.
LF: I think you start to realize, just by spelling things out exactly as they happened isn’t going to give people the feeling that you had. That was a weird thing for me to realize. You can’t communicate those things.