Skegss: “We’re stoked we live in Australia – we’re keen to grab the bull by the horns”

The Byron Bay trio’s new album may be titled ‘Rehearsal’, but as their raucous gig at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl showed, they’re more than ready for the big time

“She almost killed us,” mutters burly bass player Toby Cregan. His two bandmates in Skegss shake their heads in awe and relief.

The Mullumbimby-based trio are drinking contraband Mountain Goat beers and holding court in their dressing room before a headline slot at a sold-out, all-ages drug- and alcohol-free event at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

Cregan, whose broad shoulders prop up an Illawarra Steelers throwback jersey, throws a beer NME’s way. Drummer Jonny Lani calmly sits rolling a cigarette, the true embodiment of his early nickname Johnny Layback. Eccentric frontman, guitarist and synth wizard Ben Reed moves around the room wearing dark sunnies, his purple face mask sucking in and out disconcertingly whenever he chuckles at in-jokes.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Skegss on the cover of NME Australia #16

Skegss are talking about the woman who produced their second album, ‘Rehearsal’, drill sergeant Catherine Marks. “She’d be in the studio from 10 in the morning until midnight,” Reed remembers, “and we’d be like ‘What the fuck is going on here? We’ve never worked like this!?’”

“For the first album [2018’s ‘My Own Mess’] we’d record at night and have a few beers and stuff but she banned drinking,” Cregan says, sitting bolt upright. “But I was putting Jameson in my ginger ale. ‘You’re doing such a better job today because you’re sober’,” he says, pitching his voice up. “But I was, like, low-key drunk as hell. Joke’s on you!”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

“They’re not big talkers,” NME’s been told pre-interview by two different handlers. But the midday libation has the desired effect on Skegss, as they chat about love, frustration, ambition, surviving a pandemic and ignoring the noise from crusty old dudes: “Y’all still in the band Jonno? You do feel like a bit of a drop-kick,” Lani self-deprecates. Reed, for his part, addresses this on ‘Rehearsal’ single ‘Under The Thunder’: “I’ve got forgiveness to earn / My business is none of your concern.”

Lani and Reed were childhood mates who fell out of touch then orbited together in Byron Bay around 2014. It was decided they would form a surfy, garage rock band with Cregan and Noa Deane on guitar. Originally called The Single Fins, they said au revoir to that moniker after Reed was in a shop in Japan and took a shine to the name of a French-made acoustic guitar.

Many people first saw Skegss playing up – not playing – at Splendour in the Grass 2015: they were the four loosey-goosey dudes gatecrashing Dune Rats’ filmed interviews. The band had in fact just signed to the Dunies’ Ratbag label, which then released singles ‘L.S.D’ (“It’s not about acid, more like ‘Live.Sleep.Die’,” Cregan said at the time, unconvincingly), ‘Rock’n’Roll Radio’ and ‘Fun’. Ratbag and Warner Music slung out debut EP ‘50 Push Ups For A Dollar’ in 2015, then the band gigged until they had a bunch of songs ready for an album and hit the studio with Dylan Adams for a two-week period to record ‘My Own Mess’.

(Prior to the ‘50 Push Ups’ release, Deane paddled off into the distance to chase his pro-surfing dreams. He’s gone from number 654 in 2019 in the World Surf League to a current ranking of 90.)

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

‘My Own Mess’ debuted at number 2 on the ARIA Charts and was nominated for Best Rock Album at the ARIA Awards, losing out to Amyl And The Sniffers’ self-titled debut. Skegss toured the globe, selling out Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre and New York’s Bowery Ballroom, and followed with a double EP vinyl compilation album, ‘Holiday Food/Everyone Is Good At Something’ in October 2020.

And then – nothing. The coronavirus pandemic meant even though they’d finished ‘Rehearsal’ (more on that shortly), Skegss wouldn’t get to play shows and would remain, monotonously, in rehearsal.

So Reed bought timber and “made a couple of tables with resin in them just to have some hobbies. I ended up doing some work at a few timber mills in Ocean Shores.”

Cregan had a rougher time. “I was pretty tripped out by the lockdown; we weren’t doing anything. I was trying to write songs but wasn’t inspired, it was like trying to flog a fucking dead horse,” he says.

“I was writing songs about being stuck inside and thinking, ‘How many dumb musos are doing the same thing right now?’ I learnt how to record songs better, that gave me purpose.”

Lani lives in a solar-powered shack in the muggy forest of The Channon, very much off-piste, 18 kilometres from Lismore. “I loved it, hey, I didn’t play drums for three months… it was good,” Lani says, causing his bandmates to buckle with laughter. “I have a little property, so I built a stone wall. I’m a stonemason.”

“I was writing songs about being stuck inside and thinking, ‘How many dumb musos are doing the same thing right now?’” – Toby Cregan

Then two singles lifted from ‘Rehearsal’ cracked the triple j Hottest 100 of 2020. Backed by clever clips, ‘Fantasising’ landed at 66 while ‘Under The Thunder’ came in at 27. Pretty good in a year with no shows where the three were surviving on JobKeeper.

“It was a real surprise. It’s so cool when you get in, we didn’t get told beforehand,” Reed says. “It gives you a gauge. People fully like our tunes; you get so pumped.”

Lani looks up from his bespoke durry: “We couldn’t play shows in 2020; you wonder if people are gonna like it [the new songs]. You don’t need the constant validation, once a year is fine.”

“It’s the biggest music democracy in the world,” Cregan declares. “Or so they say,” he adds, realising he sounds like he’s drunk the triple j Kool-Aid.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

A crackly speaker above breaks up the bonhomie to tell us that Skegss have 30 minutes to the show. Reed and Cregan flinch, Lani doesn’t bat an eyelid. “That freaked me out, I thought we were late on stage,” Cregan says. More tins are cracked.

“We haven’t played a big show in, like, a year… and today’s gonna be a big show,” Cregan continues, pensive yet pumped. NME informs them the show sold all tickets – nearly 3,000 of them – in 45 minutes.

“Really? That’s siiiick,” Reed buzzes. Lani smirks, licks his papers and seals the dart.

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl’s attendance record was set in 1967 when The Seekers played a homecoming concert to 200,000 people. A year later, the Guinness Book Of Records certified it the biggest concert in the Southern Hemisphere.

Today, things are a little different. COVID-safe restrictions mean keen teens are grouped into pods where – in theory – they will enjoy the rock and/or roll music of the four bands on offer, then file out in an orderly line.

A solid idea, in theory.

For those still not getting it, Skegss are now Very. Fucking. Big. Millions of streams big.

“We couldn’t play shows in 2020; you wonder if people are gonna like [the new songs]” – Jonny Lani

Their live shows cause mass singalongs, scream-alongs, fainting, the works. The cult is real: Reddit threads are devoted to rumours of solo projects, Skegss-inspired doodling and desperate pleas for rare merch. When the trio played a livestream during lockdown for Fender and Bandsintown, a fan recorded the unreleased ‘Running From Nothing’ and put it up on YouTube, setting off a chain of frothing comments. “I get stoked when little organic things like that happen,” nods Reed.

Another thing happened naturally back in 2014: they met artist Jack Irvine at Space 44, a brohemian gallery in Cronulla. Irvine ran the space with Skegss’ co-manager Aaron Girgis and designed a gig poster for the band which took the freeform ebullience of Keith Haring and mixed it with gnarly ’80s Mambo vibes.

Irvine’s playful take on the Shredder logo has become ubiquitous: a red and yellow Skegss t-shirt recently showed up in Claudia Karvan and Kelsey Munro’s hit Stan series, Bump. You can even buy a cheesy ‘Under The Thunder’ black tie. The snaking line at the merch desk later in the day indicates business is a’booming.

While trying to understand the hype, some pundits may peg Skegss as slacker dudes more interested in punching cones than exceeding expectations. But they’ll find ‘Rehearsal’ disproves that characterisation. The Difficult Second Album offers rough-as-hessian rock (‘Valhalla’), mid-tempo indie hummers (‘Running From Nothing’), Jane’s Addiction-by-numbers (‘Curse My Happiness’) and campfire torch songs (‘Lucky’, ‘Wake Up’). With ‘Rehearsal’, Skegss are on the way to occupying rare air with Hoodoo Gurus and Australian Crawl.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

It also exudes a more measured exuberance. Call it hugs over drugs. Where Reed sang “You’re young once / And you’re old forever” on ‘Got On My Skateboard’, he now muses “One day our eyes will be shut / We’ll be pushing up daisies from the ground,” on ‘Picturesque Moment.’

In fact, with album opener ‘Down To Ride’, Skegss already seem to be asking fans if they’re ready for the band’s next chapter. “It’s actually about not needing much to be stoked, just letting life play out,” Reed explains. “As you get older, and you’re in a pretty sticky, hell-shit situation, you’re like ‘I know I’m gonna see the other side of this, I’ve just gotta hang on and I know I‘ll see the sunshine’.” He grins.

‘Down To Ride’ was one song where Marks – who has worked with Foals, Wolf Alice and PJ Harvey – demanded the band step beyond what they’d done before. They hit The Grove Studios in Somersby late 2020 along with Chris Collins, longtime mixer for the band. “He’s our translator, he understands our references,” Lani reasons.

“Catherine had great passion and got the best takes out of us. There was one song she was going off so hard on the tambos,” Cregan says, whacking his shorts and shaking himself like a dog busting for piss, “that she ended up with bruises all over her thigh.” The contusion, which happened during ‘Picturesque Moment’, was “pretty impressive”, Marks confirms.

“I heard an interview with her talking about us, ‘Those Skegss boys, the bloody scoundrels!’ What did we do?” Cregan asks incredulously, forgetting about the sneaking-whisky-into-soft-drinks studio hack.

Marks doesn’t recall any official ban on drinking: “I think I attempted a ‘no beers ’til 2pm’ rule but failed miserably.” As for the secret sipping, “I was unaware of this,” she laughs.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

A textured, feminine touch also comes through on ‘Running From Nothing’ courtesy of Reed’s partner, Mahalia. She echoes the chorus, unadorned and aloof, contrasting his’s reedy tones.

Turns out Reed’s muse brings the nightly news. “My girlfriend was telling me about some dream she’d had. I started writing about it and that became ‘Running From Nothing’. She tells me about a lot of her dreams and I write them down.”

Cregan is compelled to talk about the elephant in the room: “Usually when someone is telling you about their dream you find a feature on their face and stare blankly.”

Reed sniggers. “I try and write songs on guitar all day every day just for that moment to happen – when a song comes and forms itself on the spot, like ‘Running From Nothing.’ That’s why Mahalia sings on it, she was there when it happened.” The effect is similar to Velvet Underground and Nico’s ‘Femme Fatale’.

“I like the fact Mahalia’s not trying to sing, she’s just talking,” Reed says, getting doe-eyed.

Cregan sings about complexity in his own relationship on the jangly punk banger, ‘Bush TV’.

“The ‘Bush TV’ is when you’re camping and looking at the fire. Every arvo I go out the back of my house where I have a little firepit,” Cregan explains. Then he gets down to brass tacks.

“That song is about me going away on tour and my girlfriend liking me more; absence making the heart grow fonder,” he says, looking vulnerable. “It’s pretty literal.”

“I try and write songs on guitar all day every day just for that moment to happen – when a song comes and forms itself on the spot” – Ben Reed

Indeed: ‘Bush TV’ opens with Cregan singing, “No-one wants to be around the same person every day / And if they do that’s OK but that person is not me.” The chorus soars with a passive-aggressive warning. He remembers: “Benny was like, ‘You gotta get a chorus’. He made up the ‘Waaaait until you miss me’ bit.” Tumultuous times aside, things are back on track and she’s now his fiancé.

Reed channelled a different vibe when writing the grunting, masculine ‘Valhalla’: Big Viking Energy. The song started with a riff he wrote when he was 17. “I’d always been trying to find the words then I thought about all the Viking movies I’ve ever watched and tried to create something completely new.”

Speaker: “Five minutes until the Good Sniff performance.” The door swings ajar and a disembodied head pokes through the door.

“Fucking hell, this better be a cover story,” quips co-manager Danny Rogers. He’s guided the careers of Gotye, Baker Boy and D.D Dumbo and is a co-founder of Laneway Festival.

Skegss headlined a stage at Laneway in 2019 while Loma Vista A&R Ryan Whalley was there to see Denzel Curry. The story goes that Rogers took him to see Skegss’ set, Whalley’s jaw dropped and he signed them on the spot.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

“Hey man, we wanna go and watch Good Sniff,” Cregan says politely. NME pushes our luck and asks one more question: How ambitious are Skegss?

“We’re ambitious,” Reed replies carefully. “I think it’s wise to just observe the world for a while and see what happens. It’s a bit sketchy going somewhere and getting caught aye. If Coachella was on tomorrow, we probably wouldn’t go.”

Skegss were booked to play the two-weekend Californian music festival before the pandemic hit and scuttled everyone’s plans. “We’re stoked we live in Australia and keen to grab the bull by the horns and tour here. These all-ages shows are important. We’ve always gone out of our way to make sure there are no restrictions on who can watch us,” Reed says, putting his shades back on. “When I was growing up some of the most pivotal shows I saw were all-ages gigs.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

3.45pm. 27 degrees and muggy, a mostly cloudless sky. Ruby Fields finishes her set and the crowd swells. The SKEGSS logo bursts onto the giant LED screen and crowd chatter rises like a flock of loquacious Corellas.

Backstage, King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s manager and ex-drummer Eric Moore sits with Amy Taylor of Amyl And The Sniffers, who’s posing for pics with young, blushing fans. It’s clear many in the crowd are not only seeing their first show in a year, but for some, the first rock show of their lives.

The MC is in piss-take mode as the ‘The Pina Colada Song’ plays loudly. “Please welcome the worst band to ever play the Sidney Myer Music Bowl: SKEGSS!”

Girls jump up and down and boys punch the air, all sinewy frames and teen vivacity.

Skegss bounce onto stage, beaming ear-to-ear, and rip straight into ‘Valhalla’. Cregan and Reed give each other wide-eyed, WTF looks as the crowd use the lower register of their mostly unbroken voices, “My Valhalllllaaaa, hmm-mm-mm.” “It’s pretty fun to do a gig again,” Reed chirps.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Skegss
Credit: David Herington for NME

‘New York California’ causes pandemonium. Fans are getting out of hand and out of their allocated pods, congregating, grinding, singing the shit out of each song into right each other’s mouths. A harried stage manager runs past NME. He sprints side of stage and shouts into Skegss tour manager’s left ear. David Herington, also known as Bunny, then strides onto the stage.

“The Bunny Man has told me everyone has to go back to their own thingos or we have to stop,” Cregan says in jocular tones.

Kids saunter back to their places. Skegss play ‘Save It For The Weekend’, it all kicks off again and they have to tell the crowd to settle down. This happens four times across the gig; the band never lose their cool.

‘Up In The Clouds’ begins and a fairy floss cumulus props above, still as a painting. A teenage boy with an orange bucket hat lets his lower lip hang as he drawls the lyrics: “Waking uhhhrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp.” It’s almost an out-of-body experience, watching a concert in real life, watching a band kill it, watching humans have the best time while the rest of the world is having the worst time, stuck in, as Reed put it “a hell-shit situation”.

The sun is shining.

Skegss ‘Rehearsal’ is out now on via Loma Vista/Caroline Australia