There was a time, about five years ago, when I was waiting anxiously for The Bowles to become my favourite band. Consisting Matthew Hopkins, Christopher Schueler and Mary MacDougall, the former two were also responsible for one of the best underground Australian records ever, namely Vincent Over The Sink’s 22 Coloured Bull Terriers. As I understand it, Schueler moved to Melbourne shortly after the release of that record, hence putting an end to any regular shows for the Sydney-based band. When I interviewed Schueler about that record I remember working on the questions for hours, trying to configure them in such a way so that I would learn about all of its tiny, beautiful secrets. Schueler was accommodating but wary of dealing in specifics, and I appreciate that now. Favourite records are the ones you keep wondering about.
Despite Schueler’s move, The Bowles somehow existed. It was basically the VOTS duo but with MacDougall onboard, and knowing this I followed them rather obsessively, waiting for a release that never emerged. Hopkins and Schueler’s sensibilities are writ large on this posthumous 7 inch, probably the greatest unexpected gift of 2012, but MacDougall’s own contribution here cannot be underestimated: it’s her input, rather obviously I guess, that makes this a Bowles record.
I don’t know much else about the band, except that they played only a couple of shows in Sydney, one of which was bootlegged and posted online. It’s fair to say that this 7 inch shares a lot in common with VOTS’s 22 Coloured Bull Terriers, which comes as a surprise because not even other VOTS recordings sound like that album. The 7 inch consists six short songs, or vignettes, or attempts, and each one of them acts as a nucleus of the utterly unique art these sensibilities created when brought together. The two “Tape Pieces” were composed earlier this year by Hopkins, drawing on original recordings made by the band during 2005-06. It’s really hard, for me at least, to listen to The Bowles without taking VOTS’s recordings into account, despite some of this material probably predating that group’s best work, so forgive the potentially superfluous referencing. The Bowles are very much The Bowles.
Despite the short length of The Bowles, this release feels satisfyingly comprehensive. It takes in the weirdly downcast (‘Worrywart’), the unfathomably carnivalesque (‘Tape Piece #1’), and the often very humorous elements that arose when these people played together. It’s emphatically lo-fi, but there’s never the sense that you need to push against the fidelity in order to get to the songs, because the songs themselves seem likewise compromised by limitations. The listener is offered an insight into the group’s working method via a false start during ‘Fortune Song’: MacDougall stops the performance because she wants the shrill, clipping keyboard to be even higher pitched. Why? No idea. It’s not a conventionally “good” idea. Yet whatever happens after works wonders regardless.
It’s probably tempting to compare The Bowles to a group like The Shadow Ring (Graham Lambkin’s label released this, afterall), but while the lyrics here seem to trade in similarly haphazard visual association, there’s a double-edged lightheartedness too. Sometimes it sounds like three people staring at the wall and playing their instruments until the nethermost cobwebs of their brain are comprehensively swept out: you can kinda feel them rocking back and forth in their seats. Even the unusually tight and composed ‘Worrywart’ sounds like a group sleepily yet effectively fiddling out a song: the fact that it’s gorgeous is an unaccountable fact. Like magic, except this actually exists.
The Bowles aren’t an important group. This music is patently intimate and solitudinal. The Bowles inhabit their own room, and while the door is open and you’re welcome, they’re making no effort to shuffle you in. While it’s sad that the Bowles didn’t do more, especially since the untimely passing of Schueler in 2010, it’s a small miracle that someone released this record. Just a little bit more grease on the world’s axis, keeping a small handful of us alive.
Release date: August 2012