Vincent Over The Sink were a Sydney two-piece you’d sometimes see on experimental and punk line-ups in the mid 2000s. They were low profile, and in the beginning at least, responsible for overblown and formless guitar noise the likes of which didn’t stand out at the time. Their first 7 inch released in 2006 through a small Newcastle imprint called Shriek Sounds operated by Alps’ Chris Hearn. Then, a year later, or maybe in the same year, they released a CD-R split with Holy Balm. Both recordings sounded decent at the time, but didn’t strike a chord with me.
In 2008 I found the duo’s newly released third album, 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers, in a now-closed Camperdown record store. At the time I was surprised to find it, but I can’t remember why. I think most bands that orbited that scene – the types that played venues like Lan Franchis and Yvonne Ruve – released their handmade CDs into a less-than-receptive world. Unlike a lot of those recordings though, 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers felt like a proper album. It felt like more than a documentation or sketch. It sounded like something a band would want to draw attention to.
Listening to the record now, it’s easy to remember how it made me feel, but I can’t quite remember why it had such a powerful effect on me. I suppose there weren’t many bands doing gentle and cryptic lo-fi pop music at the time, especially bands willing to explore such a broad expanse of territory. Sydney’s underground at the time was a diverse one, but few had explored sounds like this, especially sounds that dabbled tentatively in traditional pop song structures. Songs like ‘Mrs S and Mrs H’ were unlike anything I had heard before, a tired and manic march tempered by ghostly vocals and piano melodies. The abrupt mid-verse end to ‘Waiting For Your Hair’ is one of the most poignant songwriterly decisions I’ve heard, while the somnambulant melancholy of ‘Heavy Gum’ is achingly sad. Even now I can’t figure out whether these songs are works of meticulous craftsmanship or accidents. That ambiguity is one of the special qualities of this record.
If these personal highlights paint a bleak picture for the album, then that’s my own taste speaking: a lot of it is funny, and bright, and modestly smart. Sometimes it’s really creepy. Vincent Over The Sink is not a band you turn to seeking one specific mood. Each song sounds like a new idea, and nothing sounds like an iteration on a former success.
Adding to the album’s allure was the fact that no one seemed to know anything about this particular recording. It felt like something beautiful that only I could see. The band played a launch show a few weeks before I bought it, but didn’t play again for years. There was nothing about the album on the internet. Their MySpace page had no important information, least of all about 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers. I’d Google them pretty much every day, to see if anyone else had found this strange transmission. Maybe someone else could make sense of it.
It wouldn’t have been hard to approach Matthew Hopkins at a show – his other band Naked on the Vague played regularly at the time – but what kind of answer was I hoping to hear? Aside from shyness on my part, I might have preferred to keep the band a mystery. I interviewed Chris Schueler for Cyclic Defrost eventually, and my purple prose serves to illustrate how obsessed I was with the band for a long time. I just wanted other people to know about the album and love it. I wanted it to be acknowledged because I thought it was the best Australian pop record ever made. That’s seriously what I thought. I listened to it every single day.
Though I know all the songs, segues and dead ends on this album intimately, I have no idea what any of it is about. When I listen to a song like ‘Threads of Beginning’ I hear something profound, though I’ve sculpted my own meaning. In reality, Hopkins and Schueler don’t provide much to hold onto, and that is a huge relief. These songs feel like puzzles in a way, and trying to understand them or glean meaning from them is part of the fun. The duo offer vivid images the listener must interpret according to their own needs. I think most of my favourite lyrics on this album are misheard anyway.
As time has passed I’ve grown reluctant to make declarations about music, so I won’t write that 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers is essential, or an invaluable artefact, or a masterpiece or anything like that, though it’s all these things to me. I just think you really ought to listen to it. It’s not something that you should hear in order to ‘make sense’ of a particular period in Sydney’s music history, because it’ll lead you in the wrong direction – it’s an anomaly. Instead, you should listen to 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers because it’s a very beautiful and strange record, one that still prompts me to question its origin, its meaning, and its logic.
Vincent Over The Sink had two releases after this: a 2009 cassette on Goaty Tapes called Bible Bashers, and Dust Studies, a Kye 7 inch released after Chris Schueler’s death and dedicated to his memory. A related group, The Bowles, featured the VOTS duo with fellow Sydney artist Mary McDougall. Nowadays, Hopkins records solo, as well as with Half High and Four Door. To usher in the new double vinyl reissue of 22 Coloured Bull Terriers through Melbourne label Another Dark Age, Matt was kind enough to answer some questions about the record below.
Why was 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers so scarce when it released? How many copies did you print?
Scarce it was. I cannot recall exactly how many we made up, although I’d offer a guess at somewhere between 50 and 100 copies. It didn’t make sense to do a large amount, as we just needed enough to simply pass around to friends or whoever was interested. The idea was that we’d press a double LP ourselves, but it never happened, as our finances were miniscule at the best of times…
22 Coloured Bull-Terriers was quite different to the 7 inch and Holy Balm split that released earlier. What prompted you and Chris to move in this more pop, songwriterly direction?
Both the 7 inch and the tracks for the split documented an early sound we’d begun with around 2002, a process that was shackled to forms of punk and noise I suppose. These tracks represented a kind of ‘jaggedness’ we were trying to carve out, but it just didn’t seem right to continue down this path… did the world really need more young angry men making a racket? Plus, the early sound was excluding a whole lot of other influences and moods we wanted to indulge in, like ’60s/’70s pop/folk/psych sounds.
I do have a distinct memory of us both agreeing on moving towards a pop song-y type sound, and clearly remember us discussing Syd Barrett and Faust as chief influences for the Bull-Terriers album. We would enjoy late night discussions about deconstructing songs down to their bare essentials, which I think explains the brief, snippet style feel to many of the tracks. I think we wanted to simply suggest songs, rather than actually write whole ones most of the time.
It sounds like you’re both having fun on the record, even during the more reserved tracks like ‘Mektoub’ and ‘Heavy Gum’. Can you describe how the record was made? What were the circumstances?
We had fun, we had hell, and everything in-between. We spent about two years making this album, between Sydney and the Western suburbs of Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and Melbourne. Throughout its creation we were anywhere from 5 kms to 1000 kms apart. I remember on several occasions each of us taking the bus between Sydney and Melbourne to visit each other and record. Bus for 12 hours or so, a couple of days of recording and then a bus home – cheap air travel wasn’t an option at this time. I have fond memories of Chris picking me up in in his Toyota T-18 and us collecting tapes from $2 shops in Penrith on our way to record, and then feverish chatter in the car about our plans for the session. Early on we were both kind of stuck out west in the ‘burbs, but full of bohemian enthusiasm!
A large chunk of the album ended up being recorded in Melbourne at Chris’ headquarters on a rather deserted street in Abbotsford, at the Grosvenor St Manor as we affectionately named the house. This was an incredible old wooden shack, with no real neighbours and a huge backyard where we would have fires, late night rambles, and hours of recording at all hours. We did have much fun and silliness but it was also an incredibly tough time for both us, and at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to indulge some sort of redundant rock myth or mystery, the making of this album had it all: break-ups, breakdowns, mental illness, drugs, deaths of friends and family, poverty, run ins with the law and more.
But this is life, yeah? These things are the nuts and bolts of life for some, right? What to do, what to do… make brooding, harsh, angry music???? No, no, no. Instead we chuckled at the devil, and danced around the fire rather than let it engulf us. We were incredibly focussed on the band, very pious about Vincent we were. We attempted to channel all the above anguish, all the heavy, lived things, into the songs that make up the album.
How did you and Chris meet? What were the origins of your friendship?
The origins date back to teenage years. Chris and I became acquainted through riding skateboards. We were part of a large group of people that would hang occasionally around the mountains and Penrith skating. We didn’t really know each other that well then. Years passed, then we reconnected when I was studying at the University of Western Sydney, it was at a film night or exhibition or something. Chris’ partner at the time was also studying there, and we got talking and found we both had shared interests in art and were on the same page, so we hit it off and became incredibly close from then onwards. Music wasn’t a shared interest early on, we were meeting up and making visual art and discussing ideas around painting and drawing. One day I noticed a drum kit in Chris’ room, and I’d been mucking around with a bass guitar. We just sort of thought to ourselves ‘let’s have a bash’, and that was that.
How was writing with Chris different to say, Lucy [Half High, NOTV], or Jonathan [Four Door], or any of your other collaborators?
Writing stuff for Vincent Over the Sink, which was equally shared between Chris and I, was rather hard. It involved both of us writing whole, structured songs, with lyrics and various instruments. I’m untrained musically and suspect I’m tone deaf. I can’t tell one note from the next if truth be told, so me writing a song involves tons of clumsy trial and error. Writing music this way was a real challenge! But an interesting experiment nonetheless.
With various other projects I’ve done over the years, if they’ve not been improvised, other members have taken the lead with writing and programming. The solo music I’ve been concentrating on for the last few years employs a very different approach to the song writing Chris and I did. Pop songwriterliness is not something I currently work with at all now, and haven’t done so for many years. My music making these days is largely about gathering various source materials, musical and non-musical, and spending time shaping these into something that resembles electro-acoustic/ambient/tape composition. [I’m] currently less interested in songwriting and more concerned with feedback loops and electronic squeals, some piano, maybe a bit of wonky trumpet, tape, processed breathing and absurd descriptions of things.
The name Vincent Over the Sink was one we selected from a list of possible band names we both made. Chris came up with it, and I think it might have been a line lifted from a poem, although I can’t for the life of me remember! It may have been in reference to Van Gogh huddled over a sink after doing the chop on his ear, although maybe I dreamt that. Anyway, Vincent became like an invisible third person, a connective force, a shared identity. Vincent was not so much a product of Chris and I, but rather, us combined equally, a shared identity, us two merged as one.
Often I look back on things I’ve made and feel ambivalent, or sometimes I can’t understand why I did a particular thing, you know? But this album really hits the spot, even after all these years. Listening makes smiles form, sometimes tears on occasion. It still gives me a buzz. Like an actual buzzing feeling in my skin. Hands down one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life, no question.