Moving Statues: Nun Interviewed

Photo by Zephyr Pavey

Nun is a Melbourne synth-punk band consisting Jenny Branagan, Tom Hardisty, Steve Harris and Hugh Young. When I spoke to Jenny on the phone last week, she told me she’s pretty surprised anyone cares about Nun’s music. “We’re surprised that anyone gave us a gig in the first place,” she said. “We were delighted, and no one has thrown anything at my head yet. So it’s okay.”

Nun’s music is like rifling through the $1 VHS bin at Vinnies. If you grew up in the ’80s, exposed to the hum of violent horror films coming from the living room while you were meant to be sleeping, Nun will resonate with you. Indeed, it’ll probably resonate if you were actually allowed to watch these horror films as an adolescent, as Jenny did. They released their debut 7 inch through Nihilistic Orbs last month, and they’re playing at Maggot Fest III and Melbourne Music Week in November. Maybe you could call them Australia’s premier Cronenberg-core group, for a laugh.

When did Nun start playing together?
It would have been around the end of last year. Tom and I were working at [Melbourne record store]  Missing Link and we were really on the same wavelength. It’s a funny thing when that happens, because I’ve worked in record stores for a long time, and you kinda go through stages with certain people where you’ll all collectively tune into the same stuff and show each other things. It was one of those times, and the group of us there were listening to the Iron Curtain reissues, and we were kinda obsessed with the Christian Death Theatre of Pain album. I’m a bit older than Tom, so I was showing him Coil and Throbbing Gristle as well.

We got on really well in terms of what we liked, so Tom said “do you want to muck around, just do something for fun”. He was going to university at RMIT so we went to their studios after work. He was doing a Masters in sound, and that’s how he met Steve, who used to come into the shop. Hugh also knows Tom from other bands [they’ve played together in their groups Woolen Kits and Constant Mongrel, respectively], so they’re in that other world together. Hugh heard a muck-around recording that we did and he liked it. He was like “can I come and hang and play with you guys” and we said of course you can. We were surprised anyone would like it!

Tom’s in Woolen Kits and Hugh plays in Constant Mongrel, and both are very different sounding groups. When all four of you came together, how did you arrive at the sound on the Solvents 7 inch?
‘Solvents’ is a later song, there’s a lot of material before we got to that. ‘Cronenberg’, the b-side, was one of the first things that we did. What we always do is… you know the sounds that always really get your guts, and when you’re listening to someone else’s music, especially in this realm of electronic and analog sounds, there are particular sounds that really get you? It’s not something we even discuss in a way, but we know that’s the main aim of the sound: to get a sound that makes you feel sick in the stomach, because it sounds so good.

I think we just collectively like those sounds, that colour palette, and we understand the spectrum and work within it. They’re sounds that we like and they make us feel a bit weird in the stomach. It’s a guttural feeling. I definitely think that’s how we’ve arrived at the sound, it’s not something we’ve contrived. Everyone contributes and it just works, and it’s fun.

It sounds fun. There’s all these obvious sonic references on the 7 inch, but the visual associations shine through stronger. ‘Cronenberg’ is named after the director. How come?
I was going through a stage where it was really sunny here [in Melbourne] and all I wanted to do was watch [Cronenberg’s] Videodrome. I was in my living room and I was sick of the sun: I get really burnt in the sun, really clammy and gross, so I was like “that’s it, I’m rebelling against this” [laughs]. So I shut all the curtains and watched it. I hadn’t watched it for years – I watched a lot of horror when I was growing up because I was allowed to do whatever my older brothers did. So I’d been watching Cronenberg and Videodrome was at the very forefront of my brain, and I started sketching some lyrics.  The lyrics and the composition happened because I was also listening to a lot of Jonathan Richman.

The lyrics in ‘Solvents’ have a wordy, baroque feeling. What’s the song about?
I suffer from a very severe case of nostalgia. I have a romantic view of the past, the things that you did when you were younger: old relationships, watching horror movies with your older brothers, Christmas: I’m one of those people who love Christmas, I’m a romantic idiot [laughs]. I long and crave for those romantic ideals and sense of nostalgia. The song is about the past, and about moments that were really special and really directly odd, those early experiences you have where if you try to interpret them now, they’re not the same.

There’s also an element of seeing your life from the future, things like second sight: self-perception of your future but also of the past. What would you call it… like a hauntological approach? If you were academically going to summarise it. That’s just come out of my mouth for the first time.

There’s a lot of different influences mentioned in your press blurb, particularly BBC sci-fi dramas, Readers Digest’s Strange Stories etc. A lot of these visual sources are very pulpy and b-grade. Is that a part of the nostalgia you mention, the stuff you read and watched as a kid?
That’s completely it. I still have them. I was obsessed when I was a kid with all of that stuff, and Steve was too, very much so. I have all of those Strange Stories books, and I would stare at them. I would literally memorise the pages. I grew up in Ireland, and all my relatives are Irish-Catholic. My Aunties were really superstitious. I grew up in the ‘80s in Ireland, at the time of moving statues, and apparitions. If there was a scream outside they’d be like “oh that’s the banshee wailing”. And you know, you were just a kid so you were just absorbing all this, half freaking out and half thinking it was amazing.

There was a lot going around about religious iconography moving, but I definitely took an interest from that into the so-called more dark stuff, the binary opposite of that. My older brothers were also a major influence on me, and I grew up watching the BBC. Is it because I’m getting old and I’m longing to be a child again? That could be the reason. I’ve discovered that through talking to you. You’re like a therapist. [laughs].

There’s a whole stream of nostalgic music that is heavily influenced by the BBC, like the Ghost Box label, which draws from old BBC incidental music and public service announcements. When you’re a kid you’re attracted to the occult or the weird because it’s phenomena that can’t be substantiated or proven.
Definitely. There’s definitely a sense of re-enchantment in the age of science and reason. I’m not really a religious person at all, so I don’t have a faith at all, but there is a sense, as a child, of wonderment that’s invoked by the notion of the other and the uncanny, and that surrounds the BBC sci-fi stuff, and horror films. It’s magical. Also it’s a reflection of that period, when you look at ‘70s and ‘80s horror films. The people in the creative industries at that time in Britain and the BBC really had that same want for re-enchantment in their lives. That was coming through so strongly. I guess it has since the turn of the century, when you look at the Victorian spiritualists and so forth, that rebellion against people coming in and saying “no, it’s strictly science!”. It’s a recurring theme.

Do you think there’s something inherently weird about analog synths?
Yeah! [laughs] They’re really mental. You can’t predict it. There’s a sense of unpredictability about them, they have a little hum of their own. You treat them differently: people kinda talk to their synths, you see them do it. They’ll even do weird little pat things to them. There’s a different sound and a different feeling from them. It’s a different sonic presence.

There are a lot of great synth-driven groups on Nihilistic OrbsRepairs, Chrome Dome, Nun. They all sound really different but they come under the same umbrella. Is there a special energy among the groups?
I only got to meet a lot of those lads through doing this, but I knew some of their faces from the record store. There’s a shared sense of taste, and we can discuss stuff, and I guess there is an umbrella, but there’s definitely a separate vision between those groups. There’s a shared love of the sounds that we’re using and there are a few crossover influences that would definitely be there, and we’re supportive of each other. Everyone is like that in Melbourne though, very supportive of each other’s projects and bands. It’s nice like that across genres as well. I really like that about doing this, because you get to play with your mates’ bands but also with a lot of different sounding groups.

Is there an LP coming?
Yes we’re working on it. We don’t know who’s putting it out, but there is. After Melbourne Music Week we’re knuckling down to record.


Nun’s Solvents / Cronenberg is out now through Nihilistic Orbs. They’re appearing at Maggot Fest III on the Saturday at the Gasometer in Melbourne. Full details and tickets here.


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