When Leroy Macqueen and Kat Friend decided to retire their bubblegum punk band The Gooch Palms last year, the married Newcastle natives were putting a full stop on an impressive touring resume that boasted nearly a thousand gigs over the course of a decade.
As much as it was a badge of honour, that outsized touring schedule – and its attendant pressures – was at the root of the band’s dissolution. “It’d be midnight in Dallas and I’d be screaming at some promoter,” Macqueen tells NME over the phone from Melbourne. “Little things just build up and the next thing you know, you’re in Bordeaux, France and you start crying for no reason and can’t stop. I started resenting touring, and that affected me a lot.”
Over the years, The Gooch Palms motored across Australia with the likes of DZ Deathrays, Dune Rats and Skegss, at one point spending three years based in Los Angeles to enjoy a firmer foothold on touring the United States. They were motivated by more than just a love for the road: the DIY duo were under constant pressure to stay on the road for financial survival. And as a performer that often disrobed on stage while singing with maximum volume and emotion, Macqueen exhausted a great deal of energy night after night.
The Gooch Palms were due to spend 2020 grinding on the road, but of course, the year didn’t go as anyone had planned. After supporting UK punk veterans The Stranglers in February, the duo announced an East Coast tour that would culminate with a last-ever gig in Wollongong. Then came COVID, scuttling all eight dates of the farewell jaunt. Like the rest of us, Macqueen and Friend went into lockdown, forced to regroup and re-evaluate their lives as both musicians and individuals.
“Already country has been the most supportive genre of music I’ve ever been in”
Still, few would have guessed that Macqueen would emerge not just in solo mode, but donning the time-honoured trappings of country music. Leaving behind the blurted anthems that had defined their band, Macqueen has found a ripe new outlet for their melodramatic baritone. Debuting in April with ‘On the Run’ – a single that opens with a horse’s palpable neighing – Macqueen rebranded as a crooning, brooding balladeer all too proud to follow in the steps of their longtime idols Elvis and Roy Orbison.
“My first cassette I ever got was the greatest hits of Elvis,” say Macqueen, now 33. “I was three years old and just obsessed. I would copy all his dance moves and mannerisms.” But living across the road from Silverchair drummer Ben Gillies as a pre-teen in Newcastle, Macqueen got swept up in the ’90s grunge explosion, playing and singing in pubs from the age of 14. After meeting Friend and forming The Gooch Palms, Macqueen realised it was still possible to sing short and snide punk songs in a deep, emotional voice, looking to later heroes like Glenn Danzig and Joey Ramone as role models.
Macqueen’s new solo EP, ‘The Only One’, spans all of those touchstones while announcing them as a new voice in outsider country. Their creation first instigated by the opening title track – a love song penned for Friend during lockdown – the four songs mingle smouldering romance with country music’s evergreen promises of freedom and adventure. Observe ‘Roam’, a sweeping wish to explore the open landscape with the one you love, and ‘Flood, Fire & Snow’, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Macqueen’s well-documented commitment to doing whatever it takes to make it to the next gig.
Rather than some novelty direction, country is what Macqueen plans to do for years to come. And it’s already worked a treat, with the songs garnering rotation on ABC Country and plays on Henry Wagons’ influential Double J program Tower of Song. Noting kindred spirits overseas who are putting their own quirky spin on country music – from current stars Sturgill Simpson and Orville Peck to rising contenders Charley Crockett and Honey Harper – Macqueen has also found themselves immediately and warmly welcomed into Australia’s evolving country scene.
“Already it’s been the most supportive genre of music I’ve ever been in,” Macqueen marvels. “[In] punk music, while there were a lot of nice people, there were also a lot of awful people that were out to absolutely cut you down at any given moment. Gooch Palms were kind of outsiders, and never fully in one scene. I’ve only been doing this a little bit, [but] already everyone supports each other and wants to collaborate.”
Country music wasn’t the first mode that Macqueen tried post-Gooch Palms: there was a one-off darkwave single under the name L.M. Macqueen. But after Macqueen played ‘The Only One’ for Friend, she replied, “That’s you. That’s what you should be doing.” From there, Macqueen slipped into country music like a familiar skin, even recording a series of YouTube covers that teased out the twang latent in well-known songs by New Order and Ozzy Osbourne.
And while grunge may have changed Macqueen’s musical course in the ’90s, they also note that formative decade was also marked by the newfound dominance of country music as a crossover force on mainstream radio. “Country music was pop music,” recalls Macqueen. “Garth Brooks, Reba [McEntire], Shania Twain … even the later hair-metal bands went country. They were all wearing cowboy hats and chaps. You had Bon Jovi with ‘Dead Or Alive’ and so many cowboy movies coming out, like Tombstone. That is my childhood.”
Even when The Gooch Palms lived in LA, country music was reverberating through the apartment at all times, whether courtesy of the duo or their Texas roommate. Macqueen, who is queer and uses they/them pronouns, also gravitated towards old-school cowboy crooners like Ernest Tubb, whose casual flamboyance proved just as fascinating as the songs themselves. “They were so manly but they were so camp,” they say.
“I can just write and write songs all day. Because you can write from the heart and that’s what people want”
No wonder Macqueen’s turn to country has been more of a warm homecoming than an experimental pivot. “I find it really easy to write in this genre,” they say. “It’s right in my toolbox. I love it. I can just write and write songs all day. Because you can write from the heart and that’s what people want. You can literally just be playing one chord, if you have a story that people want to hear. Writing melodies in this genre – I think it’s a natural thing that was always going to happen to me.”
Based for the past three years in Melbourne, where the ubiquity of live music was a major draw for Macqueen and Friend pre-COVID, Macqueen is working towards taking these new songs on the road with a backing band. Although Melbourne’s latest outbreak has threatened plans to launch the EP across three cities – “I can just see the big ‘postponed’ sticker,” they lament – collaborators have already been confirmed. They include prolific muso-for-hire Jy-Perry Banks on lap steel guitar, IUS expat Chevelle Wiseman from Guantanamo Baywatch on bass and Marcus Aiello of White Blanks on drums.
Fleshing out these songs for the stage will another transformation still for Macqueen, who recorded the EP at home with Friend in demo-esque fashion, drum machine and all. Between that and self-releasing a digital EP instead of shopping an album around to labels, Macqueen is happy to let this somewhat unexpected second act unfold at its own natural pace.
“That felt more right to me,” they say. “It gives me so much more room to grow.”
Leroy Macqueen’s ‘The Only One’ EP is out now