Sydney’s The Friendsters play something between bubblegum guitar-pop and stylised country music. Their lyrics are ridden with persistent depressions and stained by a struggle to cope with the First World. They’re a pop band through and through, but there’s a hesitance that the band later refutes in this interview, a saccharine veneer that covers songs that are often emotional downers. At the surface, The Friendsters are catchy and enjoyable, but they’re also deeply affecting, and something about them seems to divide an audience.
The band consists of Roberta Stewart (Beautiful), Sally Pittmann (Convent) and Liam Kenny (Bitch Prefect), all of whom – until recently – lived together in a Redfern sharehouse. Being so close has resulted in the Friendsters becoming an extension of their personalities, where surface irony covers personal revelations, all voiced with a self-aware earnestness that is as charming as it can be uncomfortable. I sat down with the band at the Carlisle Castle Hotel to discuss their unique take on pop music.
Having seen the Friendsters play a few times, it feels like there are a fair few people who don’t like the band. It seems strange to me, because it’s not like you play a confronting type of music. I’m interested in why you think that might be the case?
Roberta: People don’t like us? What are their names? I genuinely thought that it just didn’t resonate with some people, or that people didn’t care. I didn’t think it was a case of people not liking it, I just thought it wasn’t their thing. I didn’t think there were people actively disliking it.
Sally: I thought they were very poppy and catchy songs. People like that, right? Maybe not.
With the droning vocals and backing vocals, the lack of polish, it feels like you almost smudge the pop aspects down at times. Are you attracted to approaching pop music in that way?
Roberta: I don’t think we’re attracted to it; it’s just the way it sounds.
Sally: Roberta and Liam can harmonise really nicely. I might smudge it down, especially live, but it’s not on purpose.
Roberta: It’s something that maybe happens organically. I’m sure that if we really wanted to, we could have sat down and had choir practice every morning when we used to live together and sounded a little bit more polished. I suppose it’s a little bit too hit and miss.
Sally: We recorded the tape [UP2] really fast, which might be misleading.
Roberta: Liam brought his 8-Track to Sydney for the day and he had to leave the next morning. We were all really hungover to the point where I was having a panic attack, so I started taking valium to calm my nerves down. I know what you mean when you say there’s an unpolished or smudged thing, but I don’t think we intended for it to be that way. But [the tape] paints a picture of that day. So certainly it was smudged, but it was never intentional. I didn’t go, “Hey guys, let’s go for the smudged sound. Don’t you dare not smudge it up!”
The reason I ask about the smudged aspect is that your other bands Convent, Beautiful and Bitch Prefect, are all quite unpolished also, but you’ve said it wasn’t intentional. They’re poppy to an extent, but they also touch on kind of an ugliness or dreariness, as if you’re not allowing it to get somewhere. There’s also a line between something really happy and really sad. If that’s not intentional, what are you trying to create with this band?
Roberta: I’ve never heard the link between those bands intellectualised like that, so I’ve never really thought about it. But that’s interesting. I’m not sure.
Sally: I think The Friendsters sounds just like mine and Roberta’s relationship, how we talk and the things we’re interested in.
Roberta: A lot of our lyrics are born out of conversations that me and Sally have. We don’t sit down to write a song; they come from a conversation. Something like ‘Every Street’ comes from us being interested in the David Bain case, watching it on TV and talking about it. I feel like the way we work creatively is like kicking a football around, and that’s why I like it, because it’s fun. When the three of us get together it’s not like we’re shooting for the goal, it’s literally just having a laugh.
I didn’t pick up on the humourous aspect of the Friendsters at first, it’s like a self-deprecating, kicking-yourself-while-you’re-down thing. Do you think there’s humour to the Friendsters?
Liam: In the lyrics sometimes, definitely in ‘Desperation’.
Roberta: I don’t think it’s really “ha, ha, ha,” though.
Liam: It’s not trying to be a joke.
Roberta: But of course there’s some irony there; we’re not teenagers. I suppose there’s a touch of irony to the sadness or anxiety, but that’s not to take anything away from it. There’s got to be a point where anxiety and depression becomes so overwhelming that you’ve got to take the piss. You can’t always take it really seriously, but we don’t just touch on those subjects. We have songs about love, David Bane, revenge… which is sort of ironic, because none of us are really vengeful. Maybe it’s one of those things where it’s a fantasy where you wish you could be that way, but as if any of us are gonna be vengeful. We’re typical guilt-ridden Catholics.
Which songs are the vengeful ones?
Sally: Mostly ‘Revenge is the Best Revenge’.
Oh yeah, that’s a bit of a giveaway.
Roberta: I’m a little bit shy now that you’ve said there are a lot of people who don’t like us.
Sally: I just thought people used us for a chance to go outside, have a cigarette and talk to that guy they like.
Roberta: I thought that people were neither here nor there. I suppose there’s something about us that’s not exactly attractive.
Roberta: No one wants to hear the bottom of our heart. That’s why I think it’s fun. I think it’s perfectly innocent. The idea that people don’t like us…it’s like, are you kidding? Don’t you like Home and Away? That’s just a break between the news and the cartoons. But I don’t think I’m begging for people to like us, if anything I’m begging people to like my outfit. That means a lot to me.
More so than people liking your band?
Sally: It’s equally as important.
Roberta: For me and Sally, we do our hair and our outfits and shit and we’re all about it. We’re not like, “I woke up in some shed, then smoked a bong then headed to band practice.” I think we’d like to be more like Dolly Parton.
That’s your aspiration?
Roberta: Well, we’re not aiming that high.
When I saw you at Black Wire, I remember watching the sound guy for a while and he looked so upset, maybe even repulsed. I just found that so impressive, that these bubblegum pop songs could repulse someone.
Sally: I didn’t want to say it on tape, but I think it’s a fair enough thing to say. I think that maybe because it’s two women who aren’t really unassuming, dressed up to the nines, singing love songs that are intense… that’s uncomfortable for some people. We’re not 19. We’re 29, and we’re singing songs like ‘Sane’ and ‘Desperation’ which is just intense I guess.
Liam: It’s not cute.
Roberta: It’s not cute, it’s not charming, it’s not sexy: it’s intense. And I suppose people might look at the way we present ourselves and think that we might not know the first thing about heartbreak or desperation, but we do. And we want to tell people about it. So maybe that does unnerve people.
Sally: You hear a lot of bands where the lyrics are a bit under the music or are ambiguous, whereas ours are very clear.
Roberta: It’s not like we’re singing vaguely.
You think someone might not like it because it makes them uncomfortable?
Roberta: Well, we never intended to endear people with our emotions. We’re so close that when we make these lyrics, we’re making them to amuse each other. It’s very daunting to then go sing those lyrics to all these people who I know want to hear something that’s a bit more chilled out or less confronting, so that does unnerve me in a live setting.
Sally: But it’s not confronting in that it’s shocking…
Roberta: …it’s not like I’m gonna headbutt the fucking microphone.
Sally: Maybe as well it’s that people have never wanted to hear these things from women. Not just in music, but in life in general.
Roberta: We’re meant to be submissive, we’re meant to keep our mouths closed and assume subservient emotions and roles, and that’s a little bit boring. We’re not like, “hey man,” we’re like, “oh-my-god-I’ve-had-the-worst-day-I’m-gonna-rip-my-hair-out-and-rock-back-and-forth-like-an-orphan.” I suppose the linguistics that we use are heavy-handed and that may come across as offensive to people who do actually feel extreme emotions. So it’s almost taking it a bit for granted, using such heavy handed phrases and terms. I suppose it’s one of those weird little cultural things where we say extreme things flippantly.
Sally: ‘Desperation,’ for example, we wrote that because we were sitting in the kitchen and I said to Roberta that I felt like desperation had set in. And she said, “You think desperation’s set in, but desperation hasn’t even begun.” That’s a song now, but that was a conversation between us which might have meant I went to the mental hospital.
Maybe it’s hard to pick up on that the first few times you listen to it. It took a while for it to sink in for me personally, but a song like ‘No Surprise’ was pretty deeply affecting for me. I’m not sure that they’re emotions that are really put to tape that often any more.
Roberta: In saying that, I think we’re really influenced by Morrissey. Everyone’s got their reference points, but I feel like whether we intentionally do it or not, that Morrissey is a bit of one. And Dolly Parton. Me and Sally and Liam all love country music, and it probably has a similar aesthetic, where you talk unapologetically about saying, “I’m really broken hearted and down and out.”
Sally: Definitely, I feel a connection to Morrissey or The Smiths, and Billy Bragg. I think ‘No Surprise’ is a bit of a Billy Bragg song.
Roberta: I think Morrissey is your quintessential lapsed Catholic living in a modern world. He’s grappling with being a self-loathing, very conscientious Catholic, but at the same time grappling with the real world. Those conscientious platforms don’t actually fit into the modern world, so when you’re taking those emotions and thoughts and putting them within the context of the modern world you’re only going to end up beating yourself up. I think that’s actually a really common way of thinking for perhaps anyone who comes from any sort of background where you’ve got some sort of religious aesthetic. Those behaviours you’re set to think in don’t fit into the modern world.
Is that an angle where the three of you come from?
Roberta: I think so. Sally, me and Liam were born in a 1750 sensibility. If someone born in 1750 was picked up and placed in 2013, maybe that’s how we are emotionally.
Sally: That’s not to say we’re not progressives, because we are. It’s more of an emotional thing.
Roberta: It’s just a conscience thing. It’s kind of a juxtaposition, because I’m spending half my time getting fucking drunk, hitting people in the head and sending abusive emails. But then I’m going into my room, holding my chain with a saint on it and praying that I’ll do well in my job interview the next day. That’s just an example of trying to find some ground between these two worlds. It’s a contradiction and it’s difficult.
The Friendsters’ UP2 is available now through Heavy Lows.