Offstage, it’s hard to imagine Gus McGrath as California Girls. The icy lothario heard on record and seen in sweltering house shows is nowhere to be seen in this Zoom call with NME. Instead, there’s a man sitting up straight in a formal button-up and avoiding eye contact with the camera.
“I know California Girls seems really intense, but I’m a very anxious person,” McGrath laughs.
“For me to feel real about it, I need to make it really intense. I’m forcing myself into the position of being vulnerable.”
The Canberra-born, Sydney-based artist’s latest album, ‘Beat Boy’, is that anxiety writ large. Ditching the analogue synthesiser and ’90s sequencer for Ableton has brought both pop vision and a modern harshness to California Girls’ music. Auto-Tune occasionally softens the pounding electronics and McGrath’s frightening baritone-monotone, but it’s all still far from chart-friendly. McGrath says he’s relishing the space to try and “fail” at making pop music.
“I’m excited by the idea of pop music, but between not really having the proper production skills and the desire, I can’t make straightforward pop music,” he explains.
“I like this idea that through technology [like Auto-Tune] I can make my voice more conventionally better but then, in doing that, I’m highlighting the problems with it.”
“For me to feel real about it, I need to make it really intense. I’m forcing myself into the position of being vulnerable”
It’s an actualisation of the sonic dream McGrath has had since he was 18. He began the California Girls project at that age in Canberra’s scattershot DIY scene. The capital city has long harboured genre-agnostic musicians because of its size – there’s little room for subcultures in a town with only a couple of venues. It was the shows at places like Lacklustre Records, a venue-share house in the leafy suburb of O’Connor, where local electronic music was able to find a niche.
“It always felt like a much better vibe than trying to book a venue, who we felt didn’t listen to us,” McGrath recalls.
“It was a bit of a problem in Canberra when people were playing electronic music because no one would mix it properly. The joys of playing at people’s houses meant we could do our own mixing.”
Playing music as a teen, McGrath had sung self-consciously with an American accent. One night, he scored a support slot with The Ocean Party, and the 17-year-old listened to the unabashed Australian drawl with which the band sang.
“I was really stunned. Even though other bands around me sounded Australian, they were just so clear,” McGrath says.
He started to wear his untrained local drone with pride – his voice on the first two California Girls albums, ‘Age Of Consent’ and ‘Desire’, is ragged and brooding. The music was danceable, but the analogue tools he used to make it led many to characterise it as an ironic take on New Wave, rather than modern dance music (“I’m trying to make a really earnest, genuine thing – but I don’t have a zillion dollars I can blow on production,” McGrath told i-D in 2016).
“Clubbing remains an imagined world that I’ve never totally realised”
The significant evolution between ‘Desire’ and ‘Beat Boy’ came with growing pains. McGrath laboured over the last year of an art history degree, and wrote songs that went nowhere. He began overthinking music and the artifice involved. He did curation work, grappled with the administrative realities of Art Business and came away almost turned off from art due to its “formal rigidness”.
“I was really anxious about making music. I thought maybe I’ll just never play music again,” McGrath says.
To stimulate creativity, he toyed with the idea of enlisting others to write his songs for him, à la an event pop album (“It felt kind of stupid in this way that I’m into: having people write me songs, but I’m still just playing at The Tote”). He somewhat followed through on the ironic threat, enlisting producer William Sneddon to create two instrumentals for the record, which became ‘Carabiner Boys’ and ‘Give Me Everything’.
The two are the closest ‘Beat Boy’ ever comes to ballads, with McGrath singing in sickly sweet Auto-Tune over earnest indietronica. ‘Carabiner Boys’ even verges on conventionality (McGrath’s parents think it’s going to be a hit), though that effect is undercut slightly by the masochism in the lyrics: “I dream of being held down by the tattooed arms that shake my hand… All the cuts inside my mouth / Feel it scrape against my tongue”.
Outsourcing those two instrumentals inspired McGrath himself to embrace the laptop as his instrument of choice. The resulting production, made over nine months of last year, is bracingly new, confrontational, and easily his best. McGrath’s vocal bellow benefits enormously from the crisper recording, resembling an unhinged Julian Hamilton. At its best, the beats explode with verve, and shock with the extreme heights of intensity that only digital synthesis can bring. It’s an intimate portrait of sex, self and doubt.
At the time, “the experiences of being in gay clubs sounded really kind of utopian to me,” McGrath says.
“[But now] I don’t enjoy clubbing much. I find it really difficult often to have fun going out, which sounds so boring. But I always find it quite stressful – you’re super public, everyone can see you and you have to perform being interesting.”
“I am really knee-jerk against things that are fantastically romantic”
The tension between the real and imagined experiences of clubbing is the thematic backbone of ‘Beat Boy’. It follows in the footsteps of Sydney producer Rebel Yell, who released the track ‘Anti Club Music’ earlier this year and called her album ‘Fall From Grace’ “club music for the overthinker”.
“It remains an imagined world that I’ve never totally realised. It’s always something that you strive for: this perfect club experience where all your friends are there, it’s the best music ever, and everyone’s having fun. But there’s always too many real-world things to navigate to get to that point,” McGrath says.
‘Beat Boy’ also maps McGrath’s relationship with sex – perhaps the greatest of these many anxieties. He renders it in chiaroscuro definition, muddling liberation with obsession and aggression.
“I never really had relationships or anything in high school. I was very freaked out about being gay and really wanted to suppress it,” McGrath explains. “I still have a lot of anxiety around sex. And I think that’s often why I write about it so much.”
McGrath’s lust is constantly accompanied by insecurity. In ‘Body Work’, he screams “I want it all / In bathroom stalls”; in ‘Small Birds’, he demands “lots of attention and fucking affection”.
“I am really knee-jerk against things that are fantastically romantic,” McGrath explains.
“Things that are wistfully dreamy and beautifully romantic in movies or music; I’m often freaked out by them because I’m like, that’s not what the world is.”
The failed navigation of that real world drives California Girls’ music: It sneaks anxiety about imposterism and rejection into a Trojan horse of club tropes, and finds warped peace.
“Music is helpful because it’s like: here’s a beginning point and end point. What I’m concerned about can take place in the four-minute boundary of this,” McGrath explains. “Music is the untangling of knots of worry in my brain.”
California Girls’ ‘Beat Boy’ is out now on Dero Arcade