Last Monday, Straight Arrows marked 10 years of their debut album ‘It’s Happening’ – and to celebrate the anniversary, are premiering three B-sides from the time, plus early live footage, with NME.
The Sydney garage punk band only had two vinyl singles to their name when they released ‘It’s Happening’, a bracing album of two-minute garage-punk anthems that lodge ’60s-slanted hooks and singalongs in accumulated crusts of reverb and distortion.
Thanks to that noise-soaked rallying cry and a high-volume live show as showcased on a tour with Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Thee Oh Sees, Straight Arrows became an instant cult favourite, releasing records on labels in the US, UK and Italy. They answered their debut with more scathingly catchy records – ‘Rising’ (2014) and ‘On Top!’ (2018) – on their longtime Aussie label Rice Is Nice.
In the decade since, singer/guitarist Owen Penglis has established his own Goliath studio in Kings Cross and recorded everyone from Royal Headache and Bloods to newer bands like Mini Skirt and Crocodylus. He mixes and masters recordings as a freelancer too, applying the lessons he’s learnt since creating that first album’s dank and groggy vibe while mixing with Brent Griffin (aka SPOD), taking regular breaks to skate a half-pipe in the lounge room of Griffin’s home studio.
With a current line-up featuring Penglis, guitarist Al Grigg, bassist Will Harley and drummer Nick Nuisance, Straight Arrows also have a new album written and ready to record. But today, they share three B-sides from their vaults: ‘The World Ain’t Round, It’s Square’, a cover that was a staple of their live sets; ‘Hilton Bomber’, which was inspired by the 1978 Sydney Hilton Hotel bombing; and a demo of ‘It’s Happening!’ closer ‘Running Wild’. You can also check out a frenetic video of Straight Arrows playing ‘The World Ain’t Round…’ live circa 2010.
In a quick chat with NME, Penglis looked back on the band’s “nasty”-sounding debut. Find that and the B-sides, bundled as ‘Still Happening. The 10 Year Anniversary Tapes’ below.
You’ve recorded a lot of bands over the last ten years, but for the first record you reached out to SPOD for assistance. Were you still learning what to do?
Owen Penglis: Totally. I tried to do the album at my house on this little eight-track tape machine, but it wasn’t really coming together. A friend [Tim Dunne] had set up a home studio [so] I recorded it there and got given the hard drive, but I didn’t have a computer I could mix it on. SPOD was living around the corner: I probably told him it was almost done. [laughs] And six months later we finished it.
It’s so raw and noisy. Was any of that to do with uncertainty on your part?
I guess. There was probably a fair amount of self-consciousness involved. We were hearing ourselves for the first time – especially myself singing, which I’m still not a fan of listening to. Also, at the time I was really into very noisy albums: lots of American private press stuff from the late ’60s like The Bachs. So when we got all these multi-track sessions, me and Brent painstakingly put every single track onto the tape with a space echo [effect] and then back out, just to make it sound nastier.
And it does, especially as home recording has only gotten clean since then.
That was the intention. We were fucking with it so much, just trying to get it sounding dirtier the whole time. [laughs] I went to give a little polish to these extra tracks recently, and I was like, “Fucking hell”.
Building the band at the time, you recruited Al Grigg from Red Riders and Angie Garrick from Circle Pit. Did it feel like something coalescing for you?
I just asked friends whose music I dug. It took like three years to get comfortable enough to make the album. I was writing songs for the first time and also figuring out recording and arranging. I wanted to do it all myself because I figured no one else would understand how this shit was supposed to sound. I wanted it to sound nasty but have a really nice melody in it too.
How did it feel to revisit these old tracks that are just being released?
It was a cool experience to dig out the old tapes. We used to finish shows with that Savages song [‘The World Ain’t Round (It’s Square)’]. A whole bunch of people have covered it in the last ten years, so it’s a little less exclusive now. ‘Hilton Bomber’ only came out on a 7-inch in Italy. I pinched the title off that Sydney band The Thought Criminals. It’s about a cool Australian mystery that no one’s ever solved, [written] from the perspective of the bomber, who bungled the job.
And ‘Running Wild’ was just a cool-sounding demo. It was just me and Al recording that one on a cassette deck. It was such a nice day that we decided to record Al’s lead guitar outside on the balcony. Then the police came to the door: there was a complaint that someone was learning to play the guitar too loud. [laughs]
You’ve toured the US and UK and had releases in three other countries. Do you sometimes feel like Straight Arrows are more appreciated overseas?
Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve just kept my head down and not worried too much about what other people think. [laughs] But Europe especially has always had a rawer edge to the music they like. They like weird stuff, and they treat us so good over there. The last tour we did there was the best we’ve ever done. The crowds were massive and we played great.
I saw you for the first time in Geelong in 2013, and it was one of the loudest sets I’d ever seen.
It’s not that we’re so loud – it’s that you’re too old. [laughs] No, I mean, me and Al are just turning up our amps to get louder than the drums. We’ve always had really loud drummers. It’s the drummers’ fault. [laughs]