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Only More Downer: Wonderfuls Interviewed

The first publicly available Wonderfuls recording was a 7 inch on Negative Guest List Records. When it was released in early 2011, I read a vaguely interesting press release about it, something about the singer having spent time in a psych ward and, most memorably, some brief discussion re: “piss fisting”, but despite it sounding right up my alley, I ignored it.

Fast forward roughly a year, and Wonderfuls’ singer Bobby Bot (aka Robert Vagg) is in town, playing drums in Kitchen’s Floor for their Bitter Defeat 7 inch tour. Bobby and I had agreed to meet at the Townie in Newtown on Sunday, and it was an interview I was very much looking forward to. Thing is, on my way to the pub I listened to Salty Town, Wonderfuls’ new LP, and it spooked me. It’s just so utterly sad. It took the wind out of my sails.

Since receiving the mp3s a fortnight ago, I’ve kinda hidden from Salty Town a bit, sneaking the odd listen now and then when I thought I could handle it. It’s light years away from the demented songs about pissfisting found on the duo’s first 7 inch, which is the most thoroughly fucked recording of 2011, probably. On Salty Town, Wonderfuls deliver quiet, confiding songs that are equal parts straightforward and bleakly impressionistic. Here, recognisable narratives derail into horrific aberrations.


Take this sample from ‘North’ for instance, which recounts an adolescent’s daily experience in a small town: “I was given an orange ticket / sent home to watch a pornographic film / with a son of a mother who was an… addict / she lived on the wrong side of the ward of this place / painting landscapes is what people done there / or was it just for you?”

Wonderfuls is cousins Bobby Bot and Danny McGirr. The Brisbane duo formed in 2004, but didn’t release anything until the 2011 7 inch. According to Bobby, the name Wonderfuls was inspired by a quote by Sebastian Hawk in the Mike Leigh film Naked. “Have you ever had smoked salmon after sex Louise? It’s rather wonderful!”, Bobby recited to me. It’s a bit odd that this innocuous quote should inspire the name of such a band, but after our interview Bobby also explained Wonderfuls is meant to evoke something “foreign-sounding”, something “strange”, something mystical. Something outside of daily existence. Something literally wonderful.

Bobby is a lovely guy. It turned out that we had actually met before, in 2009 during an Extrafoxx tour. He’d come into the 2ser studios to be interviewed as part of that group, and I remember him sitting quietly in the background. He barely muttered a word. During our current interview however, he broke into song on a couple of occasions, which seemed a bit out-of-character at first but increasingly made sense. Over time his incredibly deadpan sense of humour began to emerge, shedding new light on some of the songs on Salty Town. He said that he subscribes to a belief-system called ‘Wonderfulism’. At the time of our interview, Bobby was unsure how Salty Town would be released, but he’s currently selling a CD-R edition independently (see the bottom of this article for details), with an LP version slated for 2013.

Bobby is also a visual artist of some repute, specialising in sad monochromatic face portraits, as below:

How’s things in Brisbane?
Yeah, Brisbane’s good. I started to really enjoy it probably about two years ago. It [the music scene] was something I got involved with by being persistent and not going away. I chose not to go away and everyone had to accept that I wasn’t going anywhere [laughs].

What bands have you played in besides Wonderfuls and Kitchen’s Floor?
I did play in Extrafoxx when it was a two-piece, which was just Conwae [Burrell] and myself. We did a tour a couple of years back, in 2009. I’ve also done Sounds From The Ward, which was a more experimental noise thing, also with Danny [McGirr]. It’s had a couple of different line-ups across a couple of different shows.

Wonderfuls is your songwriting project, right?
Yeah, definitely. Well it’s the two of us. It’s been very much a personal thing between Danny and myself. We’re cousins. We both moved to Brisbane from the Gold Coast – I was living in Beenleigh, and Danny was living on the Gold Coast – and we both moved to Brisbane in 2004.

So 2004 was when it started?
Yeah. Danny was living in Paddington – at LaTrobe Terrace, which is right across the road from the infamous 116 house [depicted in several Kitchen’s Floor film clips]. It started out really as… [trails off]. I’d say I was really sick at the time. I was on a lot of medication and I couldn’t function normally. We’d sit in the bedroom and paint, and record. All that early stuff was almost unlistenable, but there were a couple of fragments that did sound okay.

And are those fragments that appeared on the first 7 inch?
Yes. I met Brendan [Annesley, of Negative Guest List] at a show. I was in a bit of a state, and I’d seen him around, so I said “hey cunt, listen to this! It’s the best fucking punk song you’ve ever fucking heard in your life”. I played it through MacBook speakers and he said “yeah that’s good, want to make a record?” Then the next day, or a week later, we met at Fat Louies to have a chat. We didn’t really say anything really, we just sat and drank. We didn’t really need to say more.

No business deals signed or anything?
Haha, nah.

So you must have recorded a fair bit of material between 2004 and when the 7 inch came out.
Well yeah, when we went through them there must have been close to a hundred recordings. Some of them went for thirty seconds, and some went for up to seven minutes. Some were bordering on being so bad they were funny. But yeah, there was quite a bit. We actually lost a lot of material as well, thanks to computers burning out, etc.

The songs on the 7 inch are pretty diverse. They definitely don’t sound like they’re from the same session.
Yeah, definitely. The songs ‘Pissfist’ and ‘Hated Man’ are both from the same period, 2004-2005, and the other two are from about 2006. Actually, ‘Young Hearts’ was from a later period and it was a very different style. We experimented a lot, but [what resulted] was mainly to do with the mood. There would be times when I’d just turn up from a bender or something and Danny wouldn’t say anything, he’d just put some headphones on me and press record, and I’d do something.

What kind of stuff were you listening to during that period?
I don’t really listen to much music nowadays. Raw Power was a big influence for a song like ‘Hated Man’. I listened to a whole array of music during that time. I was listening to a lot of Swans, but otherwise I can’t even remember what I was listening to during that period, to be honest. Raw Power was a big one though. I was going to a lot of shows and clubs as well. During that period there were still good goth bars that existed in Brisbane like Faith, the Alarm Bar. They were all on Saturday night and they were all goth. Going to them was a bit of an influence I guess.

Are the songs on Salty Town relatively new, or were they written over a period of time, like the 7 inch?
‘Relapse’ is an older song. That was from 2004, but it was just never properly recorded then. It’s quite an important song to me personally, and I thought it needed to be done justice and recorded properly. All the other songs are very new. ‘Salty Town’ was a song I wrote the lyrics down to in their entirety and took to Danny. Danny and I have been playing music together for so long that we both get this feeling – he knows exactly what the song needs. It goes vice-versa.

There’s a pretty massive shift sonically between the 7 inch and Salty Town. Salty Town sounds like a very personal record.
Well yeah, that’s a path I’ve always wanted to go down – very slow, and more to the point of telling a nice, nostalgic story. Not that they’re all complete stories. A lot of the songs, like ‘Changes’, are riffs that Danny has already got, and I’ll be listening to it, having a cigarette and listening to him play, and I’ll get this overwhelming nostalgia, and this whole story from a childhood memory will come flooding in. I could just hear it straight away, and I knew what the lyrics would be, and I knew how the lyrics would sound. I’m happy with the direction we’re moving in.

When you say nostalgia, what are you nostalgic for?
Growing up in the country, in rural New South Wales: Forbes, Parkes, West Wyalong. I moved to Queensland in about 1989. Memories of family, moving around a lot. Danny also moved around a lot with his family. We come from a pretty big family – and we spent a lot of time around farms, so the landscape of that area has influenced us. But generally the songwriting just started going that way. About five songs are about memory, but then there’s also stuff that is more recent, and then there are others that are just really mystical. I think ‘Salty Town’ is about accepting that you may not be happy, and that this may be as good as it gets.

Maybe it’s to do with getting to a certain age, but is there a reason you’re feeling nostalgic now? The older songs on the 7 inch certainly don’t show any trace of that.
No, that 7 inch was total pain [laughs]. I guess I am getting a bit older. It was a pretty wild time back then. I think it’s natural for things to mature, to become more serious. I just feel like I really have something to say and I want to take it in a serious direction.

One of the great contrasts between the 7 inch and Salty Town are the album covers. On the 7 you look utterly sick, whereas on Salty Town you look quite morose, but also quite confident and healthy. Are the covers meant to signpost these changes for the listener?
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but now that you say it it kinda looks that way. The photographs are actually from the same period. The photograph on the cover of Salty Town was taken the day we’d done ‘Young Hearts’ [from the 7 inch, the only one to be recorded near that record’s release]. It was summer and there was sweat pouring off me. But yeah, it does look that way. Probably it was a subconscious thing. The EP is complete chaos, you can just tell by looking at the cover that it’s not going to be pretty, whereas the other photograph is still quite sad but quite hopeful.

One of my favourite songs on Salty Town is ‘North’. It’s a song about a small country town, and there’s a weird tension between it being lovely on the one hand, and then very ugly on the other, especially with the references to killing pigeons and watching porn. What’s the story behind that song?
[Laughs] Well a lot of the stuff in that song did happen. The parts at the school fete, I have quite vivid memories of that. I did really enjoy that primary school, the clay tennis courts, the witchetty grubs. But then there are other parts that are purely made up, for other reasons. I’m not sure what they are. In a way I think it’s exaggerated, but I did go to a kid’s place back then where it was just a mum and her son, and I’d go there after school sometimes. There’s a line where it says that the mother was an addict, and that she was on the wrong side of the ward. I like to deliver lines that don’t make sense at all: where it’s hard to hear. I like people to question whether they heard something right.

It feels like an innocence to experience song. There are all these very wholesome set pieces contrasted with some very ugly parts.
For sure. I don’t know where those [parts] came from on that part of recording. A lot of it just comes from what I think sounds right with the music.

You mentioned ‘Relapse’ before. On the press release that accompanied the first 7 inch it said you’d been in a psych ward, so I gather that song is directly related to that experience?
Yeah, exactly. The whole thing. I was there for about ten nights in 2001, and the thing is… I’ve spoken to people who have also been in [a psych ward] and they have no memory of being there, or they choose not to remember, or they were too dosed up to remember, but for me it was a very vivid experience. I can almost remember every single detail. I felt I needed to have one song about that experience. A part of it was when [afterwards] I moved back to my mum’s house, and we were living in a house in Beenleigh. I was just in the house wandering up and down the hallway, and for some reason it made me feel good.

No pressure to answer in detail, but what were the circumstances?
I don’t want to go into it. I dunno, I was just 20 or something. Something wasn’t going right. I could feel something not going right for years before that. With the songs I’m writing now, with the nostalgic songs, I feel like there are a lot of issues that I’ve never dealt with or confronted, things that should have panned out better. There are moments when I asked why is this happening. But I don’t want to go into it.

The record is very sad. It’s hard to listen to at times. Are you scared to release it, or are you worried how people will interpret it?
No. I think – like any form of art – that I want it to be seen and heard. But I can definitely understand why it’d be difficult to listen to at times.

Now that Salty Town is recorded, do you think Wonderfuls will keep going in that direction stylistically?
[Long pause] It’ll only get sadder, only more downer.

Aside from these songs reflecting the way you feel, what appeals to you sonically about sad music?
I find there’s always a part of it that makes me feel really happy. It always makes me feel really happy. I also like the experience of it, it’s a very isolated thing. You don’t put it on with ten people at your house sitting around having some beers and smokes. When you listen to a sad record you do it by yourself, or at 4am in the morning with another mate or your girlfriend. The sun’s coming up and you put the record on to help you sleep. I also want to play it up loud though.

There’s one happy song on there called ‘Change’ – it’s a more upbeat, happy song. It still sounds pretty sad though [laughs]. Actually, maybe there’s nothing happy about it at all! I think going in another direction would be more about lyrical content than the sound itself changing. But I don’t want to do things the way they’re meant to be. I don’t care about the right way to write a song or the right way to structure a song. But I’d still like to write about what’s happening now, rather than the past.

***

Wonderfuls has released a limited edition eleven track numbered CD-R of Salty Town, limited to fifty copies only. The CD-R comes with a printed black and white booklet with drawings and photos by the band members, as well as an A3 black and white poster. The CD-R also contains a couple of alternate track outtakes. Contact: wonderfulsmusic@gmail.com .

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