Back in June I interviewed Shogun about the then-forthcoming Royal Headache album High. We met in the beer garden of the Huntsbury Hotel in Petersham, where Top Gear was screening on the widescreen television. The interview was for another publication with a strict 500 word length, so a lot of our conversation could not be worked into that piece. This is the full conversation, with a few edits for clarity.
At the time I had not heard the record, but I had heard the song ‘High’. Little more needs to be written about the album, because everyone wrote about it. The Guardian even gave it five stars twice. It’s a well-documented album, but it wasn’t when we had the conversation below, and Shogun appeared a bit nervous about how it might be received.
Why did you put the Petersham water tower on the cover of the album?
I live really close to it and it’s something of an urban monolith that I’ve lived in the shadow of. I think I’ve had a lot of significant experiences beneath the tower. I’ve actually been in there and it’s really beautiful. It’s a weird tranquil glade around this ugly industrial structure and it seems to symbolise something about inner west life. Having lived around here for the last ten or 15 years, it’s become significant and oddly beautiful to me.
For me and probably a bunch of other people in Sydney who love Royal Headache, you’ll have soundtracked their life between 2010 and now, particularly in the inner west. How have things changed in this area between then and now?
[Things have changed] all over the world, but it’s always going to affect areas near city centres I think. Everybody wants to be bohemian now, which is killing the condition of having an affordable area for people who would rather focus on their art and music and work. We don’t have that anymore. Royal Headache was maybe an expression of that transition, because in my 20s I used to do lots of noise and obscure stuff, punk and hardcore, but it’s harder to get a gig now, and it’s harder to keep that somewhat sustainable. I think Royal Headache was about the transition from one kind of society to another, and what I saw was lacking in that transition. Something that I was afraid would be lost in music and probably humanity.
What’s the transition?
Probably from subjectivity to a society of pure surface.
Is that change more obvious in Sydney?
Yeah, I think Sydney is a city of surface and the music community at the time seemed to be obsessed with detached cool. I always had the idea that underground rock and roll was about being an outsider, not this sort of out-of-work model actor type person, this glamour shot type person. That was never me and I was confused to encounter a lot of these people. I’d want to say all these things to them but was unable to do so, and they didn’t seem to want to listen. So [Royal Headache] was an outlet for me to discuss things a bit more deeply, a bit more cathartically.
Royal Headache are by some measures a pretty successful band. You seemed pretty adamant that the band would be over last year, though.
No, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve got nothing else going on in life, you know what I mean? I’m done with that tantrum. I’m not a total idiot, I’m just 84 per cent idiot.
Was that tantrum initially triggered by what you were saying before, the fact that the world you had entered didn’t live up to your ideals?
I think I grew to be so angry with the pitfalls of the outsider rock and roll community and how high school the whole thing seemed, and I was suffering the same way I did in high school where I felt like I had no friends and no one wanted to talk to me because I didn’t look good and smell good and all that fake shit. I wanted to rupture things from the inside a little bit, and strip the skin away from things and remind people that it was okay to have a subjectivity, to have a conscious and an inner life, and not just be a drifty cool hologram.
Royal Headache pushes back against all of that.
I think so. I don’t know if everyone understood the simplicity of Royal Headache. It can be saccharine at times but it was actually a technique I used to try to bypass the rational mind, because I could tell that was making everyone really unhappy. It’s been the driving machine of civilisation for probably the last few hundred years, and I saw how little it was leaving us as human beings. I wanted to try to exercise something from beneath language a little bit, through just the texture of voice, and through melodies that’d come from the back of my mind and not leave me alone. I gave them a little bit of credence and thought they could be codes people might understand.
You’ve played in punk bands, and weirder bands, for some time. Where did your voice come from? Did you ever use it before Royal Headache?
I always wanted to sing but no one would let me because I wasn’t good looking or arrogant enough. But I always thought I’d do a good job. Since I was five, I’ve sung all the time. I was just waiting for people to work with who weren’t so arrogant that someone without swagger and a big fat bullshit story wouldn’t be able to sing. I had to wait until I was 27, 11 years, to find people humble enough to give me a chance.
Why did it work with the guys in Royal Headache? How did it all come together?
They’d already been together. They were humble guys and weren’t wheelers and dealers. In Royal Headache I feel like the black sheep but then, all the members are different. They’re humble and loving people, and as much as I’ve hurled abuse at them in countless drunken moments I’m so lucky to have them because they gave me a shot. In their own slightly shambolic fashion they play beautiful music and I’m lucky to have them.
Your voice, your singing, your input – that was the last thing to come along?
It was. They’d been rehearsing with another singer who was a friend of mine, but she had other commitments and maybe it wasn’t quite for her, I’m not sure. She’s done other bands that are quite good. Basically, I got involved with the songwriter as more of a talking head, and basically [the band] weren’t really able to write songs though they’d been practising for a while, maybe close to a year. They didn’t have tunes, just a bunch of riffs. I listened to their rehearsal tape and it was just really good, and it had something that I, as a cynical old fuckwit, didn’t have, which was naivety. Something you see in a little kid, just the pulse of life. I got inspired and I was supposed to just help them a little bit, but I ended up writing lyrics for all six or seven songs on the demo. I came to practice and started singing, and they seemed really into it. And you know, after an hour or two of singing with them I think it became pretty clear that maybe I was going to be doing more than being a ghostwriter. The only one who didn’t seem to like it was the first bass player who quit a couple of months afterwards. I think he said that I sounded like the Stone Temple Pilots. I think he was into that auto-tune emo thing.
You say you’re cynical, but that doesn’t shine through in the music at all.
Well it’s my only opportunity to believe in love, and to sing, and to… you know, have a boogie in a realm that’s a little bit sweeter. I think that’s a social function musicians need to provide. I don’t think it’s meant to be real. We already have real. The imagination and the dreaming mind is a real part of human activity and if we become too rational we lose everything and become a post-human society where computers are really the boss and we’re just statistics. What’s in that for us? What’s the advantage?
What makes you cynical? What are you cynical about?
Myself, just myself. I could be cynical about society at large but that’s arrogant, there was no written destiny for the world, and it’s no great surprise that it’s come to this. But I’m cynical about myself and my total inability to appreciate any of my fortunes, and to do anything that I promised myself that I would. I’m ashamed.
What did you promise yourself?
Just to be accountable, to be less emotional, to be more grown up. I have trouble with that stuff. I still have a teenage heart unfortunately. I’m doing everything I can to erase it, but I don’t know, maybe I have some kind of problem.
Do you think that’s what makes you a good rock singer?
So is it objectively a bad thing?
I don’t know. In that circumstance perhaps not. I should probably enjoy it while it lasts because I can already feel it waning.
I’m becoming arrogant because too many people kiss my arse, but I’m also becoming bitter because most of my real friends have abandoned me in jealousy, or disgust, or because there’s something easier going on. So the combination of those experiences is just turning me into a fuckwit.
Most people, when they see someone singing in a good band, think “well they’ve got their shit sorted, they’ve got a good band, a good outlet”.
They make a lot of assumptions.
So it’s not like that at all?
Well it is and it isn’t, but people shouldn’t make assumptions. You can safely assume that the harder a person sings the more shit they’re dealing with.
On that note, how come the vocals are so much more prominent on High? I’ve heard you weren’t happy with the official mix on the first record.
I just didn’t want to defeat myself. I was in a bad place when we recorded the first record, I was beneath the line of human functionality, and I felt really disgusting and had no faith in myself at all. But I thought the songs were nice: enjoyable and lively. So I thought I’d pull the voice back so people could hear the songs without hearing too much of me, or else they might cotton on to some detail in my voice that would show how much I was hiding, and how much pain I was in. Maybe they wouldn’t want to know me anymore. This time it’s a different record and I have more control, and I wasn’t so worried. You know the phrase: shit or get off the pot. It’s a disgusting American phrase, but you do it or you don’t do it. Don’t go into a studio and sing a track for an hour trying to get it right and then turn the fucking thing down. That’s fucking absurd.
Speaking of the pain that comes with singing that hard, there’s something about ‘High’ that’s really sad, but in a beautiful way. Certainly not in a terrible way. Is that something that you consciously channel, that mixture of emotions, or is that inherent?
It is conscious, there’s no way I’d want to write a purely saccharine tune, especially having to sing that song so many years after the event. That was a tough song to sing because it’s like a honeymoon song, a falling in love song, and having to sing it at the end of it all had a vicious irony to it. I never want to make something that’s purely saccharine. I think people judge me sometimes for writing melodies in major keys.
Do people really judge you for that?
I don’t know, people don’t really talk to me.
Do you think they’re just scared to ask you direct questions about your work?
And that annoys you.
What’s the song specifically about, then?
It’s about falling in love in a disastrous circumstance, putting your faith in something that might destroy you, and not being afraid because it’s one of the only things that ever felt good.
Love is a huge risk.
And no one knows whether it’s worth taking anymore, because we’re in this transitional phase of human development and we don’t know what kind of creatures we are.
What do you think prompted that transition?
The internet. Information overstimulation. Secondary sources instead of sensory experiences are making people schizoid, eternally paranoid, and we’re over-developing the mind to the point where it controls the body.
You did an interview with Doug from M+N a while back where you explained why you were leaving the band. How did the disenchantment after touring the first album come about?
Let me think about it. In my personal life it wasn’t anything too much to do with punk politics, and feeling guilty for being a success, it was more to do with being a fairly anxious, reclusive person who was suddenly being scrutinised. I felt that I’d revealed too much to my audience and I understood why everybody else was doing the shady-sunglasses-at-night cool thing, because they were preserving their dignity, whereas I completely pulled my pants down to the world.
Some people loved it and some people hated it. Initially the music press hated it, they thought it was puerile. We had bad review after bad review for our shows, but there were people at every gig singing along and it seemed like a really warm response, and then the next week in the press there would be a review saying we were hopeless and that we sounded like shit. I think there was a polarisation of how people received what we were doing. I was bypassing the boring, kicked-to-death snobbery of indie and punk music and trying to put some immediate humanity back into it, in spite of credibility and good aesthetics and everything like that. To me none of that matters at all, because music is just like oxygen. It’s like a chemical element. Aesthetics don’t really come into it for me.
Was that mainly from the punk-oriented press that you were getting bad reviews?
No, it was the big indie music press. They didn’t like it. And then the record came out and it got five star reviews everywhere and it became clear that what they didn’t like was me: because I was drunk, because I dressed like a fucking low life, because I ran around the stage and I was unsightly, and the way I sang and looked reeked of despair. They didn’t want that. They wanted a Brian Jonestown Massacre. To them, that second rate shithouse American shoegaze band was about as vivid as they wanted things to get.
Has that changed?
Yeah, it’s good. It is changing and people are opening up because people are so desperate now for joy in any way they can get it that they don’t need to pretend. People need music to be pure more now because it’s hard to find simplicity and purity. It can be a real oasis in today’s world.
How do you create these oases when you’re, like you say, cynical? Is it a concerted effort?
Not when I’m in the right mood and I feel like writing. I care about people and I don’t want to be isolated. I want to communicate, and I don’t want to be afraid as to whether what I’m saying is stupid or juvenile… though most of it is. I suspect people have that in them too, and I try to leap across a gulf and take a risk because when I started this band I honestly had fucking nothing. I pictured myself chain smoking in a mental institution for the rest of my life, so I thought I might as well be a little more truthful with everybody and see what happens. The results have been nice. It’s good for people to reciprocate that leap of faith.
Do you have any hobbies or pastimes other than music?
No, my other hobby is getting out of it.
For better or worse, that seems to come hand-in-hand with playing in a band sometimes.
Seems to me that all the things you worry about are possibly the reasons you’re such a good artist. On the one hand you sing powerfully about love – Royal Headache have so many great love songs – but they couldn’t have been this good without loss.
Yeah, I guess I got to a point where I chose to see my sadness as a resource rather than something that was going to destroy me, and I just thought I’d push it into the music. To try to make it worth something to other people rather than something that was ruining me.
Is it the easy option to make dark music?
It can be. I find it brave in a way, because I see it as a betrayal of your community. Maybe I’m conservative or a bit communist, but I feel like music should have a social function and that it should be uplifting, to a certain point. Otherwise it’s self-indulgent. We don’t need to be torn down. We already get that.
Is there value in dark music?
Of course. I wish I was brave enough to make it. I deride it sometimes but deep down I know that it’s a part of myself that I’ve found. A pitch darkness. I saw that it would destroy me so I ran away from it. I think it can be a bit of a luxury, really. I think you’ll find that people who’ve struggled don’t generally make really dark music. I could be stretching it.
Is that the reflexive thing to do? Does it take some kind of effort to acknowledge that going down that path and making explicitly dark music is not the right route for you? Or did you not overthink it?
I made a lot of dark music when I was younger, and then I got to a point where I saw that I was really going to need to fight my way out of a hole, and it made sense to do stuff that had vitality and up-ness to it.
And that was for your own personal benefit.
Yeah, to celebrate energy and life as the final salvageable piece of my humanity. The crudeness of a beating heart and a melody with power. It was never really an artistic endeavour for me, it was supposed to be a bit of a primal yell.
So when you were making less approachable music, how different was your philosophy then compared to now?
I was always secretly listening to pop music and honestly most of the dark stuff was just fun. It was about hanging out with your friends, getting loaded, and enjoying some naughty frequencies. I think people were really afraid to sing the gospel of life, afraid to get too close to the bone, and at the point where I lost everything that made me an agreeable or credible or well-liked human being I thought: well, it’s time to take care of this. I always knew that was what I wanted to do with my music – to say the most obvious thing that seemed to go unsaid in my rock and roll community.
You seem to have a strong determination to be a good person. That’s good, but is that common? Do you think that’s something most other people feel?
I need it because, in spite of what this autistic culture of technology tells us, I don’t think that we can survive and live a rich life on our own, and I really need other people. Without them I just kind of fall apart, and I think we all do to an extent. I wanted to make something that would remind people of togetherness and trust and shared joy.