“Fuck nostalgia,” Pop Filter guitarist Mark Rogers proudly says. The sentiment is at odds with what could be considered 2020’s prevailing comfort: romanticising the before times while stuck at home under lockdown.
New Melbourne supergroup-of-sorts Pop Filter, though, would prefer not to. Save new addition Nick Kearton (of Cool Sounds), their makeup is almost identical to The Ocean Party, a beloved Melbourne jangle band that broke up last year after the sudden passing of drummer Zac Denton in 2018. But their official bio obscures this by omitting the names of the members, while their band photo disfigures their faces. ‘Banksia’, Pop Filter’s debut album out this Friday (August 21), is unofficially an abstract collection of memories of their time together in The Ocean Party, but they certainly don’t see it as a document of nostalgia.
“What was the biggest thing that happened in all of our lives? Immediately before [Pop Filter] was the death of Zac and the breakup of the band. So of course, we’re looking back over 10 years,” Rogers acknowledges. “But we’re thinking about the expanse of time and change as a productive thing, something that you can’t change.”
If ‘Banksia’ dabbles in nostalgia at all, Rogers says, it’s a concept that veers closer to the Ancient Greek definition of nostalgia, one famously misappropriated by Mad Men: the opening of old wounds.
Rogers is chatting with NME from what he calls his “lockdown hole”: his modest drama lecturer’s office at The University of Wollongong. With brushed black hair and wiry glasses, he looks the part of a playwright, but fills gaps in conversation like Liam Gallagher (“D’ya know what I mean?”). Though separated from the other five members of Pop Filter by hard state borders as they approach the release of their first album, Rogers is chipper. The band had already squared away another record before the portal to Victoria closed.
The shifting quality of the players in Pop Filter makes ‘Banksia’ feel like the product of a dolewave orchestra: a six-piece arrangement complicating trembling acoustics and plodding analogue synths. All of the tracks are glued together by unconscious commentary on the life of an aging independent musician. It’s signposted with a wink from moody opener ‘Not Listening To The Same Thing’: Liam Halliwell sings “Skip a beat, like a CD”. The self-reflexivity becomes more explicit on ‘Big Yellow Van’, as Lachlan Denton celebrates their 10 years of touring together with Van Halen synth stabs in a major key.
But it’s Rogers’ aching slide guitar contribution, ‘Open House’, that encapsulates Pop Filter’s forensic reflection best. It was written while sitting alone in a family home before it was sold, listening to a band he used to play in with some of the same members as the one he’s in today. “Songs I used to sing / Sounds like they were made by aliens / Thinking women were prizes / Hitting the high notes,” he sings.
“I was just thinking about how weird I was then,” Rogers says. “Listening to that music and being like, ‘Who’s that guy? That guy is different to me, but the same’. There’s some very different attitudes there.”
“We’re thinking about the expanse of time and change as a productive thing, something that you can’t change”
All of Pop Filter’s members, bar Kearton, met at high school in the NSW town of Wagga Wagga. The teens bonded over shades of nu metal and pop punk (“We only got into cool music like way later. We liked trash, man”). Rogers credits his friendship with brothers Lachlan and Zac Denton to Insane Clown Posse. In year 8, Rogers, Halliwell and Jordan Thompson received the same $300 Casino guitar-amplifier package for their respective birthdays, and began to play in a dizzying number of gigging high school bands.
At the time, “Wagga had a ludicrously good youth music scene,” Rogers recalls. “We played pubs, doing three-hour cover sets. Like, as a teenager. We weren’t even allowed to drink! I don’t know whether that exists anymore. In fact, I’m sure it doesn’t, but we were the beneficiaries of a really wonderful council who wanted to stop kids doing drugs. Little did they know, of course, that they were a perfect opportunity to do drugs and get drunk, which we did, and had a lot of great fun doing.”
After university, the group progressively moved to the music haven of Melbourne to form The Ocean Party, which Rogers joined in 2013. The band ran until the sudden and tragic death of Zac Denton in 2018, aged just 24. After Zac’s passing, the band explained in a note that “writing new [Ocean Party] material without him wouldn’t feel right”. But Rogers says they “were never gonna stop playing music together”.
“That wasn’t even a question. Really, part and parcel of the decision of not playing as The Ocean Party anymore was the assumption that we keep playing [in some way]. But I do think it’s really important that we let The Ocean Party be a band with Zac in it. That’s what that band was,” he said.
“We were all going to be led by Lachlan in that space anyway. Lachlan was gonna make that call, and we’re gonna support him no matter what.”
“You don’t get to make as many albums as we’ve all made if you’re not a little bit half-assed”
Without much fuss, Pop Filter became that new band. The first record was borne of a boys weekend at Rogers’ family coast house in Broulee. “Banksia”, crowned by a plaque emblazoned on the front, had been an important getaway for the six friends since their high school days; a bottle-o around the corner is proudly the site of a successful underrage purchase of vodka by Thompson.
The makeshift recording studio in the living room centred around a TV-cum-recording monitor, and a set of expensive microphones Zac had left behind. Drums were set up in the middle of the room, and guitar amps were scattered between bedrooms. Each individual member wrote the skeleton of two songs between the beach and the house, before they were fleshed out together through the freeform sextet recording process.
“I like that our songs have to go through six different heads before they exist. There’s no one vision,” Rogers says. “I don’t want to listen to myself, you know. I want to listen to everybody else in conversation; in dialogue with me. That’s far more interesting.”
The album was done in just four days, with Rogers driving the six-hour return trip between Broulee and Wollongong to get to his teaching job.
“Anything that sounds out of tune and crap on the album is probably me. And it’s probably the first time I’m playing it,” he laughs. “That accidental-pseudo-experimental, but also somewhat lazy approach to songwriting and recording is something that I think we all kind of enjoy – a half-assed nature. You don’t get to make as many albums as we’ve all made if you’re not a little bit half-assed.”
The scrappy mission statement is the equilibrium the six have been chasing for much of their musical careers, now unfettered by the idea that music will ever be a full-time occupation. Rogers describes Pop Filter as “throwaway, in the best possible way”.
“The band was always about friendship”
“I think we’ve all found as musicians that anything that smacks of careerism, trying to make it or trying to get a bigger platform is just toxic garbage that we’re just not interested in,” he explains.
“It doesn’t exist unless you buy into a corrupt horrifying system that we’re not really interested in being a part of. The band was always about friendship.”
Aware he’s saying these things in a promotional interview, Rogers adds the caveat that as far as industry obligations go, “the bare minimum is good enough” for them. He won’t, however, even entertain the notion of the band becoming accidentally successful.
“It’s just clear that isn’t going to happen. We’ve been around for too long. It’s not sexy in any way. We are a bunch of newly 30-year-olds writing some guitar music together. We’re not labouring under any illusions about that. I don’t feel defeatist. I feel quite triumphant.”
Pop Filter’s ‘Banksia’ is out on Spunk! Records on August 21