In September 2000, if you were walking the lanes near Chapel Street, Melbourne, you may have encountered a motley crew of twenty-somethings striding about in unwashed corduroys and mothballed jumpers. This, in itself, may not have appeared unusual, but look closer, and their tired eyes would’ve told the story of a band in the grip of an epic project. Augie March, with two ambitious EPs under their belt, were in the final days of recording their debut album, ‘Sunset Studies’.
The stakes were high: Augie March were building on the success of ‘Asleep in Perfection,’ a blue-tinged marital tale-turned-rage hit from the ‘Waltz’ EP, which was itself nominated for two ARIAs. Not only did the band exceed expectations on their debut album, but they managed to write an Australian classic.
Released 20 years ago today, Augie March’s debut is an expansive suite of painterly sounds and poetry – but it came together in the most ramshackle way possible. The band chose to record in multiple studios, some conventional with polished floors and grand pianos, and others a little more rag-tag, like Elevated Brains, a mud brick shack in the tiny town of Daylesford, Victoria.
Augie March had just inked a label deal with Sony BMG and had more resources behind them. But instead of working with an expensive fly-by producer, they favoured a more experimental approach, with the slick sound of a twelve-mic room bleeding into low-fi, four track recordings. This restlessness of changing spaces, shifting amps, and the near-constant tweaking of songs fit with their ambition for the record. When the energy was on tap, the instinct was to get it on tape quickly.
“It just made sense to try working in different spaces with different people because the album was always going to be a hodge podge,” songwriter and vocalist Glenn Richards tells NME. “My favourite albums have never been ones that sound like three weeks in the same room with the same chains and ears. If a version recorded in a caravan sounds more authentic than a $2,000 a day studio with a Grammy-winning producer, that’s the one to use.”
The original core of the band – Richards, guitarist Adam Donovan and drummer David Williams – grew up in the railway town of Shepparton, in rural Victoria, where Donovan and Williams shared a pale back fence and became accustomed to insulting one another from their respective lawns. Soon, though, they shed their teenage hides and decamped to Melbourne, where after one drunken night at the Punters Club on Brunswick Street, they recruited bassist Edmondo Ammendola, and the band was born.
In search of a name, Glenn tried out the hero in Saul Bellow’s novel, The Adventures of Augie March, who comes of age in an atmosphere of love, loss and alienation. Bellow’s novel combines abstract lyricism with conversational verve, two qualities fans would also come to associate with the band.
In the lead-up to recording ‘Sunset Studies’, Richards found himself writing day and night. Although he’d been toying with poetry for years, the evolution from teen scribbler to master songsmith was down to his embrace of two poets, A.D. Hope and Kenneth Slessor. Both had a flair for conjuring vivid natural environments, a skill the young Richards was keen to emulate.
“A great deal of the music being made back then was lousy… You just didn’t want to contribute to the slag heap if you could help it” – Glenn Richards
“As I often do, I write a kind of impressionist version of place,” he says. “I did indeed see a storm, which became a plague and a phantasmic vessel, on the Indian, and it was the first time I’d ever seen that green ocean.”
This ocean seeped into a number of songs, but is perhaps most pronounced on ‘Heartbeat and Sails,’ where Richards sings: “In biting down on the great foam world / What is the looming thing?” And, later, in the second verse, holding the raft steady: “Feel the subterranean movement a fraction / and deep under ocean, the celibate rocks.”
Although it eventually became a single, the band wrestled with the song in the studio. Late into one of the sessions, they stumbled on a solution: kitchen cutlery. “We took to deconstructing and rebuilding the song,” recalls Williams. “A drum kit wasn’t available, so we went hunting around the studio kitchen for some sounds that would do the job. A plastic suitcase was emptied and filled with cutlery, some soup bowls and coffee cups were dragged in with each member being assigned a sound to hit.”
The making of ‘Sunset Studies’ may have been shambolic, but the record is full of trance-inducing images, colours, and scenes. It captures the mythology of rural Australia without coming off as parochial. We are always travelling, the highway dipping and turning. Time is slippery: We go back decades, to a corner pub where secretaries sing karaoke, and then back a century, to watch lovers chase one another over cliffs. Guitars shimmer and peak; the lulling piano, banjo and campfire violin craft a shifting world of hope, humour and pain.
Williams describes ‘Sunset Studies’ as a product of “strong-willed youthful exuberance”. “We were eager to explore unconstrained,” he explains, and at 76 minutes, the record is indeed grand in its sprawl and texture, from the gothic atmosphere of ‘The Hole In Your Roof’ to the epistolary war-story of ‘Owen’s Lament’ with its finale of piano trills. Four songs in, there’s ‘Tulip,’ a perfectly strained character study, which almost didn’t make the cut.
“The air conditioning had failed in the studio,” remembers Richards. “It was atrociously hot everywhere and I’d left the vocal to the last possible moment. I had no voice and felt ill. It was north of 2am. I remember trying to sing it full but it came back like a weak shot at an ’80s power ballad, so I went a bit softer and falsed it, which was probably the right thing to do.”
When you hit ‘Men Who Follow Spring the Planet ’Round,’ in the record’s mid-section, it lets you know that this thing is running till dawn. The song has something of Greek mythology about it, where armies are mobilised and fleets launched to recover a monarch’s beautiful daughter: “From pole to pole I’ve spread my soul / O’er sea to august sea.”
But at the banjo’s warble we hear a song not about Helen of Troy, but of Australia’s fatal shore: “Well met and met the English said / and sailing set for free land.” While many of the song lyrics were written on the back of envelopes with sharpies, Richards says this one required something different. “I remember very strongly sitting down and writing it from first to last verse on an old typewriter in a Hawthorn flat, then never using the typewriter again.”
As a young writer, Richards says that he was in search of what he calls “environmental psychology,” not simply trying to mark the contours of specific towns and regions, but to get at how it might feel to be among them – the dew grass, the cattle grunts, a shouting match that erupts in the vineyard. “I was very much about the listener or reader being responsible for the story and its environment, but I also knew that you had to make something both true and artificial, moving and without perceivable borders, to enable that.”
Such an erudite approach was unique for Australian music at the time, which was consumed with the post-grunge malaise of Silverchair, Grinspoon and Powderfinger. Nick Cave had settled into middle-aged ballads and The Go-Betweens had only just ended a 12-year silence with a new record. “A great deal of the music being made back then was lousy,” says Richards. “Not as bad as now but still pretty bad, and you just didn’t want to contribute to the slag heap if you could help it.”
“If a version recorded in a caravan sounds more authentic than a $2,000 a day studio with a Grammy-winning producer, that’s the one to use” – Glenn Richards
The depth of songwriting on ‘Sunset Studies’ struck a note in the culture at large, which was in the grip of ruddy jingoism in tune with the Sydney 2000 Olympics. All those “oi oi oi”s were bloody exhausting, and seemed to characterise the bombast of the Howard years all too sharply. Augie March offered something different: an alternative vision of the country, one that felt like an enrichment of the soul, not just medals and flags.
‘Sunset Studies’ was not so much a release, as an announcement: this is the new high bar. It changed everything for the band, setting them on course for a long career. They won an ARIA award, made Rolling Stone’s Artists Of The Year list, and were dubbed Revolver magazine’s “best band in Australia.” While sales were initially poor, the album has since achieved cult-status around the world. Twenty years on, the spine of the record juts out on my shelf, overshadowing the other LPs in its company. After listening to it in full, nothing out in the world looks the same. It changes the atmosphere, a steeple on the hill.