The Stroppies have weirder ways to go

Embracing experimentation with new member Zoe Monk and recharged by a tour invite from Paul Weller, the Melbourne jangle pop group turn a corner on third album ‘Levity’

The Stroppies have an excellent new album out – and fans may have the Modfather to thank for it.

The band’s guitarist and vocalist Angus Lord jumps on Zoom with NME from the UK, where the band have just wrapped up their first tour since 2019, supporting Paul Weller alongside a pair of their own headline dates – a return to the stage Lord pronounces “surreal”.

“It feels like being plucked out of obscurity into a very strange, overwhelming, highly stimulating environment,” he muses. “But it was good. We got to go around the whole country and play in a bunch of gilded Victoria-era music halls that looked like wedding cakes.”

Advertisement

Like so many artists in the last two years, The Stroppies were in the creative doldrums in the pandemic. They had a European tour cancelled around the start of the pandemic in 2020, right before Melbourne was plunged into what would become one of the longest lockdowns in the world.

Lord and his bandmates released the scrappy ‘Look Alive!’ EP (recorded while on tour late the previous year) in mid-2020, played a handful of one-off shows in the brief windows of freedom, but otherwise stayed largely dormant.

Then, opportunity presented itself. Being asked to tour with Weller lit a fire underneath the band, not only to perform again, but for recording new music – resulting in their new album, ‘Levity’.

“It feels good to be playing gigs again. To have this experience has realigned me somewhat in terms of being like, ‘OK, we can do this,’” Lord says.

“The whole COVID thing shifts the paradigm a bit, because it makes you realise how flimsy this creative infrastructure is,” he continues, “that these systems and spaces you exist in, they’re so contingent on the goodwill and hard, thankless work of a lot of people.

“When a global pandemic comes along and sort of eviscerates that, it renders things a little more succinctly in terms of just how fragile that whole thing is. ‘Levity’ felt apt just in sort of a refutation of that reality and just a forward march in the face of what has not been a particularly pleasant period of time for people in the arts.”

Advertisement

The Stroppies formed earnestly in 2016 as a recording project for Lord and bassist and vocalist Claudia Sefarty (plus, for a spell, Dick Diver’s Steph Hughes), with the aim of creating “open ended music, collaged quickly and haphazardly together”. Drummer Rory Heane joined the fold not long after.

Their early records – a self-titled demo recorded in their loungeroom and released in 2017, and 2019’s ‘Whoosh’, their debut studio album – showcase an infectious knack for jangly, melodic guitar-pop and lo-fi experimentation, reminiscent of The Clean or The Bats’ early output while developing the band’s nascent idiosyncrasies.

Also peeking through at the seams are the band members’ previous projects: Boomgates, Twerps, Tyrannamen, Primetime, The Blinds, White Walls – an impressive list that has landed The Stroppies the occasional label of ‘supergroup’. The traces of these bands are discernible partially in sound, but mostly in spirit and approach: a do-it-yourself mentality and an eagerness to capture sparks of creativity before they vanish.

Despite being written and recorded fairly quickly amid the ever-shifting nature of the pandemic and lockdowns last year, ‘Levity’ doesn’t feel particularly haphazard. If anything, it feels like the document of a band stepping into who they are outside of their immediate influences.

“You want the songwriting to get sharper but the palette to become more adventurous. That’s what I hope the trajectory of the band is”

While the Flying Nun touchstones still glimmer underneath, there’s both considerably more grit and complexity to the songwriting on display. Serfaty’s rhythms have more space to move, there’s more fuzz and bite to the guitars, and Heane’s drumming is complementary but satisfyingly propulsive.

Songs like ‘I’m in the Water’ and ‘Figure Eights’ recall the energy of ‘Isolation Drills’-era Guided By Voices, while closer ‘The Bell’ is some of the darkest, most brooding territory the band has explored.

Critically, ‘Levity’ is also the first time the Stroppies have given themselves this much room to experiment. Drawing from a wider backdrop, ‘Levity’ indulges the band’s art-punk sensibilities with more curiosity and confidence, marrying the immediacy of their earlier work with a more active impulse for more esoteric ideas.

“You want the songwriting to get sharper but the palette to become more adventurous. That’s what I hope the trajectory of the band is, really,” Lord says. “At the end of the day you have to have good songs sitting in amongst that experimentation.”

Opener ‘The Perfect Crime’ opens with a nagging vocal loop that repeats as the song builds around it, Lord and Serfaty’s voices in unison. In its final minute, it morphs into a fuzzed-out, kaleidoscopic jam, modulated electronics fizzling underneath. Notably, throughout ‘Levity’, the lo-fi organ sounds that underscore the earlier records are replaced with more warped, warbling synths and effects.

The sonic ambition of ‘Levity’ stems partly from the addition of Zoe Monk of Eggy and Thibault, replacing previous member Adam Hewitt on guitar and contributing significantly to the electronics that accent most tracks. Says Lord: “Having Zoe in the band’s really good, because she’s geared towards that avenue of experimentation.”

Lord was also lucky during lockdown in that his work in his day job increased, allowing him to invest in and learn to operate gear like a sampler, which he says he’d never quite got his head around before. “When it came time to make the record, even though we did it quickly, we were able to sort of use stuff that I’d acquired, and a lot of that was done at home. There was a good sense of play involved there.

“The band started because an old housemate had left a Casio keyboard, and I literally pulled it out one day and started teaching myself. The first two records, we were just using the pre-determined sounds on a Casio,” Lord explains. “I guess just inevitably, as the interest in what’s possible expands, you start incorporating that more.”

Despite being partially created in isolation, ideas being sent back and forth digitally, ‘Levity’ feels as collaborative as any of the Stroppies’ earlier material. Lord and Serfaty’s distinct songwriting styles and vocal dynamic complement one another beautifully, while Monk and Heane’s contributions add significant depth, including the sugary harmonies throughout. Altogether, it sounds like members are keenly tuned into one another’s wavelengths, instruments playing off each other.

The band’s songwriters have previously talked about using the framework of a pop song as a vessel for exploring the personal, but ‘Levity’ feels less introspective and more observational, in broader conversation with the environment around the band. “Nowadays the people down here tend to think aloud / Taking all the photographs to send up to the cloud,” Lord sings on ‘Caveats’, a glossy, crystalline cut about the internet and self-commodification.

‘Levity’ leans into the band’s more absurdist tendencies when it comes to their approach to subject matter. Stroppies songs are generally built up from wordplay, oblique layers of meaning buried underneath the language rather than directly confessional in any way. “Smilers strange politely in your sleep / Dreaming of the people you beseech,” Serfaty and co. sing on the brilliantly titled ‘Smilers Strange Politely’. “The [lyrics] process is the thing that reflects back to me something that maybe I don’t understand,” Lord says. “There’s a sort of automatic quality to it.”

‘Levity’ is the Stroppies’ strongest work yet, but what’s most exciting is that it feels far from a full stop, continually hinting at the places the band could go next.

“It’s strange to be at a point where, after two albums, it feels like there’s actually somewhere to go with it. It feels like there are more things to uncover in the process,” Lord reflects. “I think the next record will be weirder still.”

The Stroppies’ ‘Levity’ is out now via Tough Love Records

Advertisement
Advertisement