The Goon Sax were playing a tiny art gallery above a burrito bar in Canberra in 2017 when disaster struck. The Brisbane indie pop trio, all of high school age and hot off the release of their internationally acclaimed debut ‘Up To Anything’, broke three bass strings, and were forced to borrow two bass guitars from their support acts – which they broke, too, bringing the night to an abrupt end.
Yet, it wasn’t an unusual show for the young band, who regularly rendered their songs in a scrappy fashion live. “I think there was an element of wanting to play old songs just with whatever energy we felt in that moment, to make them more honest,” vocalist-guitarist Louis Forster tells NME via Zoom. “We played in New Zealand once and did a 17-minute set. And the festival was like, ‘What the fuck was that?’ I think we were feeling very fast that day.”
Bassist-guitarist James Harrison chimes in to agree. “We didn’t quite realise that maybe we should play the songs so that people hear the version that they like,” he says.
Four years later, the Goon Sax couldn’t be more different. They’ve signed to legendary NYC label Matador Records, recorded with PJ Harvey producer John Parish and are readying a decampment to London. The band’s third album ‘Mirror II’, out last Friday, swaps downstroke guitar chords for a stack of analogue synthesisers, no wave saxophone, and an aesthetic poached from the 4AD-signed bands of the 1980s.
“Having drum machine beats in there means we can’t change the tempo live even if we wanted to,” Forster winks.
The singer joins the call dressed in black, with a crucifix earring dangling from his left ear. The spitting image of his father, the gangly Forster rolls and smokes cigarettes indoors throughout our chat like a French New Wave protagonist. Harrison avoids eye contact with the webcam, and lets silence ring mid-sentence. Stretching discordant chords and whimsical poetry over bar lines, the bassist’s songs are distinct from any of those penned by Forster or drummer Riley Jones.
“They’re about a moment and observing my feelings in the moment,” Harrison says, staring into space. “It would always be the intense moments which were the best. The ones where I felt out of my body and…” He pauses and grins: “I don’t know, I would observe things.”
Until now, The Goon Sax have been defined by their adolescence. They formed in 2013 while they were still in high school, making two records that were fixated on a binary view of love: a dialogue between two people, of ‘I said, then you said’. The honesty produced by their age was incisive but discomfiting – Jones told Noisey in 2018 she found it hard to listen back to their second record ‘We’re Not Talking’. “All we cared about at the time was being honest,” she said. “And now it’s like ‘Oh yeah, we really achieved that’.”
But on ‘Mirror II’, love and truth are cast aside as two-dimensional. For his part, Forster is interested in dissolving linear perspective and personhood altogether to illustrate the ways in which we are all interconnected. The number two in the record’s title was initially an arbitrary addition to distinguish the release from another artist’s album called ‘Mirror’, but it slowly came to represent the concept of “reflecting upon reflection”, Forster says.
“I think on the first two records, I had a sense of wanting to very specifically get something across, like almost an order of events,” he adds. “But then I had a breakdown about truth in the world. It started to become a very strange, malleable and mysterious concept to me, which I thought was fun.”
On lead single ‘In The Stone’, a song which began life as a murder ballad set in Brisbane, perspective changes almost line to line. Forster was heavily inspired by Chris Kraus, whose dialogue-heavy book I Love Dick flits between different points of view, fiction and memoir – a form that mirrored the songwriter’s reflections on his personal life.
“I felt like a different person every day,” Forster explains. “For the first time, I was [dating] someone where every one of those things were accepted. Sometimes I’d turn up at their house, and I’d feel like a vampire or sometimes I’d feel more beautiful. I didn’t think that there was some kind of inherent truth or some inherent version of myself that was more accurate or more real.”
When the band first started writing new music, it was the same period in which they were playing 17-minute sets. Accordingly, the results were slipshod and atonal.
“We wrote almost a whole other record that was [Captain] Beefheart-like, a bit more post-punky, and scrapped a lot of it,” Forster remembers. “That stuff felt a bit reactionary, like we wanted to play those songs in the context of ‘We’re Not Talking’ so that we would connect to our live show more.”
Jones and Harrison dedicated time to their noisy side project Soot: a group that sounds like Scott Walker at The Tote. Forster moved to Berlin with his then-partner, immersing himself in the city’s electronic music scene and working late nights at a cinema.
When he returned, Jones wrote two songs: ‘We’re Just Talking’ and ‘Space Time For Love’, the latter “an otherworldly version” of their 2018 song ‘Make Time For Love’, Forster notes. “I think maybe the fact that she named them the opposite of those things we’d already done was like, David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ on the fuckin’ ‘Heroes’ cover, you know?” he adds. It was with these “bridging” songs that the Goon Sax began to pour into a new mould.
Most of the final material for ‘Mirror II’ was written while the band lived together in a Queensland sharehouse they nicknamed the ‘Fantasy Planet’ – a terrene that also housed three other non-members in a four-bedroom house. Forster compares it to being packed like sardines, and Jones isn’t sure she’d do it again.
“I had a breakdown about truth in the world. It started to become a very strange, malleable and mysterious concept to me, which I thought was fun”
It was the studio, however, where ‘Mirror II’’s new sonic palette was set. While they had miniature keyboards kicking around the Fantasy Planet, The Goon Sax ended up in an analogue synth arcadia at Invada Studios in Bristol, owned by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. Over half of the record’s keyboard arrangements were written during those sessions. The band sought out the production of John Parish directly to manage the competing sounds of three songwriters for the first time.
“What I liked about John was that his sound wasn’t something that was defined,” Forster says. “I think he just pushes people further into what they’re already doing, and helps them explore it more deeply.
“He wouldn’t just understand one of us and try to make the other sound like that person.”
Between Forster’s haunted honky-tonk, Jones’ dreamy drones and Harrison’s outsider folk, the triumvirate of songwriters do indeed present wildly different tones. A deep reverence for pop music and its palliative function glues them together, as Jones sings on ‘Desire’: “Tried to listen to a pop song to get through the day / But all I heard was you”.
Through that shared pop impulse, ‘Mirror II’ is seamless, the stylistic palette of the three members is imperceptibly stitched together. On the record’s classic cover, the trio are dressed in ’80s fluorescent garb, but posed anachronistically like a renaissance painting, intertwined on the frame’s diagonal axis. It’s impossible to tell where one of them begins or the other two end, an apparent metaphor for their new worldview: it may be uncomfortable, but we’re in this together.
The Goon Sax’s ‘Mirror II’ is out now via Chapter Music and Matador Records