Surprise Chef’s Lachlan Stuckey is remarkably unflappable for a man who’s just played his first US show – at a huge festival, to boot.
NME catches up with the guitarist mere hours after the Melbourne instrumental funk quintet grace the stage at Desert Daze, a staple of the Californian festival circuit that this year also featured the likes of Tame Impala, King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard, Mildlife and POND.
Asked for his thoughts on the Antipodean dominance on this international lineup, Stuckey offers an answer that teases an encyclopedic understanding of sound and rhythm. “A lot of psych-rock, funk or jazz historically is American music,” he muses. “I think that there’s something in the Australian interpretation of that stuff that maybe we don’t realise.
“But to an American audience, where they have decades of history of that kind of music, then there’s this really strange and tangible difference in our interpretation. Maybe that’s why Australian bands in those genres perhaps work, or are of interest to that kind of global audience.”
Stuckey, keyboardist Jethro Curtin, bassist Carl Lindeberg, drummer Andrew Congues and multi-instrumentalist Hudson Whitlock are Surprise Chef. Since their official formation in 2017, the band have carved out a reputation as one of Melbourne’s hottest instrumental acts. While their funky core draws from soul revivalists Menahan Street Band and El Michels Affair, the band also have a knack for injecting jazz, dub and even film music elements into their sound, something that’s surely indebted to their fondness for crate-digging in Melbourne’s many record shops.
The group honed their sound through hours of writing and recording material in the College of Knowledge, a Coburg sharehouse spilling over with vintage musical gizmos that shares a name with the independent label run by Stuckey and Curtin.
“The tertiary experience in Melbourne can breed a certain sense of competition or ego within music… After three years of jazz school, we just had a gutful of that whole experience of everybody just trying to show off”
It’s in this inner north abode that Surprise Chef have cooked up just about all of their discography, including their latest record ‘Education & Recreation’, the band’s third album, and first release on revered Brooklyn soul imprint Big Crown Records.
On this lush, evocative album, out today, the group’s songcraft takes a subtle step forward without abandoning the groove-oriented sound cemented on their previous releases.
“We were very conscious that we didn’t want to make any big sweeping changes,” Stuckey asserts. “We didn’t feel like for record three, we [had] to do something different, or throw in some gimmick for the sake of making a statement.”
Parts of ‘Education & Recreation’ were written during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns by the three members of Surprise Chef that reside at the College of Knowledge, but it wasn’t until all five of them were able to convene that the record really began to take shape.
“There was a three-month stretch where we just wrote like crazy and turned out about 20 tunes,” Stuckey explains. “Then in January, we put together nine days in a row at the studio and recorded everything we had and cut the record together from there.”
Although there’s certainly flourishes of the throwback funk that first earned the band a fanbase, ‘Education & Recreation’ is Surprise Chef’s most ambitious affair yet. Cuts like ‘Spring’s Theme’ lurch from gently plucked nylon-string arpeggios to thumping boom-bap grooves without warning, while the stark spaciousness of ‘Iconoclasts’ is testament to the band’s less-is-more ethos.
“I think we were all interested in the sense of spaciousness being a little greater for this record,” Stuckey says. “Sometimes it can be a little bit frightening putting lots of space and having quiet moments where there aren’t any instruments playing for multiple beats at a time. But I think that was the kind of record we wanted to make, and the tunes that made it onto the record were the ones that lean into those sensibilities a little more.”
“We’re definitely trying to reflect our own experience, rather than trying to posture like we’re some slick American funk band”
After working with him on their past two projects, Surprise Chef again recruited Karate Boogaloo bassist Henry Jenkins to serve as producer and engineer on ‘Education & Recreation’. Jenkins’ input is just as pivotal to Surprise Chef’s process as the College of Knowledge, Stuckey says, and it’s clear that the love is mutual, with both groups often sharing stages and split 7-inch releases.
But Jenkins isn’t the only Karate Boogaloo member to feature on the new album – drummer Hudson Whitlock marks his first official outing with the group as a multi-instrumentalist, after years of “crucial” contributions onstage and in the studio.
“When we started the band, we didn’t ask him to join because he was already heaps busy with Karate Boogaloo and The Cactus Channel,” Stuckey explains. “But naturally he was just involved every time we had a recording session, and then we started doing shows with him a couple of years ago and realised that the music sounded so much better with him in it… He’s effectively been in the band for years, it’s just now we’ve put him in the press shot!”
Perhaps one of Surprise Chef’s most alluring aspects is the lack of flash, and Stuckey is staunch that the band feel no desire to flex their musical chops more than required.
They’re a band that sound like five musicians playing together as opposed to five musicians playing around one another – an ethos that can be traced back to each member’s experiences navigating Melbourne’s cutthroat jazz school culture.
“The tertiary experience in Melbourne can breed a certain sense of competition or ego within music,” Stuckey says. “That was one of the things that brought us all together musically, because we all didn’t fit into that mold. After three years of jazz school, we just had a gutful of that whole experience of everybody just trying to show off.
“We can all play music pretty well, but none of us are virtuosic, and none of us feel the desire to exert our skills in a musical setting. It’s not really what we’re trying to get out of music, and that experience really shaped the goals of Surprise Chef.”
Talking to Stuckey about Surprise Chef’s experiences with jazz school helps draw out another thorny topic: how much of Australia’s tertiary music curriculum is indebted to music and cultural legacies that it’s thoroughly distanced from.
“Earlier on, I personally had a bit of a barrier with really diving into making funk and soul music, because of the cultural aspect of it,” Stuckey admits.
“There was part of me that felt like a bit of a poser or faker trying to make that kind of music, being so far removed from the time and place and the lived experience that birthed it. But I kind of came to realise that, as I said earlier, we can bastardise the music in a way that’s respectful and presents a different perspective. We’re definitely trying to reflect our own experience, rather than trying to posture like we’re some slick American funk band or we’ve had some experience that isn’t realistic.”
That last point should be obvious to anyone who casts an eye over the down-to-earth titles on the tracklist of ‘Education & Recreation’, some of which will only scan to Melburnians. Take ‘A1 Bakery Pledge of Allegiance’ and ‘Velodrome’, which will both pleasantly collide when Surprise Chef launch the album with a November gig at the Coburg Velodrome with catering by A1 Bakery.
“We can only write music that reflects our own lives,” Stuckey concludes, “and I think that’s at the centre of what we do as Surprise Chef.”
Surprise Chef’s ‘Education & Recreation’ is out now via Big Crown. They kick off their Australia & New Zealand tour on October 27 – find dates and ticket info here