What is it about the drowsy, sun-soaked suburbs of Australia that turns out such fantastic guitar bands?
Is it the boredom? The working-class struggle? Why do these kinds of quiet, undocumented heartbreaks resonate so loudly? On their sophomore LP St Leonards, Slowly Slowly from Melbourne’s Outer East, mix heartfelt balladry and classic emo-pop as a backdrop for charismatic frontman Ben Stewart’s vulnerable, lyrically dense songwriting. Alex Quayle (bass, production and additional vocals) and Stewart met at a party, smoking bongs – the standard teenage story. Quayle was in another band at the time. The two struck up a partnership, and the band was formed.
All of the material across their two albums Camomile and St Leonards was written by Stewart in concert with Qualye, and recorded by the pair. The band have since added two members as live performers, Pat Murphy (drums) and Albert Doan (guitar). Slowly Slowly’s bio says they specialise in ‘beer soaked anthems’, but their sound is influenced by 90’s and early 2000’s Emo bands, and is more poppy than contemporaries like The Smith Street Band.
They sound like older groups of the math, punk and grunge scenes in Australia, like former touring partners Something For Kate. It’s hard not to hear bands like Jimmy Eat World in the supercharged lead guitar intro for their breakout single Alchemy for example, harks back to the best of Pop/Emo without sounding trite. This is because the band are a far more sophisticated pop proposition than most of their peers. Everyone can sing, and everyone can play, and there are some interesting moments on their first record ‘Chamomile’ that offer a sense of the band’s quixotic promise.
The strange thing about this band is that the most logical extension of the songs on ‘St Leonards’ come from singer Ben Stewart’s intimate and painful take on outer suburban family life. There’s very little in the way of grandstanding here.
On ‘St Leonards’ Stewart mourns a lover and a family, a life he’s no longer sure of, and talks about grappling with ambition. He seems to feel he has to sacrifice his relationships at the alter of his success. It’s a story that compels in the context of this young band, and Stewart has the energy, look and voice to tell it. Does the songwriting have the self-awareness to be genuinely as deep as the setup suggests?
Stewart is certainly a gifted performer, and he believes in the redemptive power of pop music. Quayle seems able to produce and realise the scope of Stewarts writing, and there’s a real synergy between the two that forms the core of most real guitar bands. And there’s an appreciation of tone on record, and in their curated live performances. There’s a jagged sense of unresolved trauma that continues throughout ‘St Leonards’, and that’s the primary theme I wanted to uncover while talking to the precocious young frontman.
The Neversphere: Firstly, are past trauma, intimacy, and distance some of the core themes on St. Leonards?
Ben Stewart: It’s a very reflective album. The first album, ‘Chamomile’… I wrote a lot of it while I was in the thick of the content, but ‘St. Leonards’ involved lots of soul searching and self-assessment. I think it was a bit more measured in delivery.
The Neversphere: ‘St. Leonards’ sounds like a breakup record, a leaving home record, and also a reconciliation with the past.
Ben: Coming to terms with the past and putting stuff to bed was the most present theme throughout the album. I feel a lot better after writing this record. At first I felt like everything in my life was exacerbated by writing about it, kind of like this dramatic version of my own life – but I now see it all from a distance and appreciate the process.
The Neversphere: ‘Alchemy’ is such an optimistic tune, there is such momentum behind it. But in the front of the new album St. Leonards, there’s this feeling of being dragged back into an unhealthy scenario. Do you think that there’s an element of that there?
Ben: The first batch of songs written were ‘Dinosaurs’ and ‘Aliens’, that have that kind of glum lens. That negative spiral. And then everything that came after was sort of reflecting on it. I was stuck in unhealthy, circular thought patterns, and wasn’t really looking after myself, both mentally and physically. When you neglect your mental health for so long, because they’re second nature, you are always looking at outside stimuli as cause of the problem. This album was looking in and trying to see how the cogs in my head played a part in my outside world.
It was a cleansing process. I’m actually scared about our next record because I feel like I’ve scraped the barrel, and I’m in a really good place at the moment. That’s not somewhere that I’ve ever been before, especially with music. I tend to write only when I have the lows, and so I’m scared about the future … but I’m also excited. ‘Alchemy’ really felt good to us, when it came together. Initially I really, really didn’t like it, because it so different to what I’m used to doing. It was our bass player, Alex, who also records everything, who said, “No, no, no, this is cool. I really like it – this makes me feel good,” and I was like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, maybe we could do that.” I’m really glad it’s having that effect, and just even hearing you speak about it feels really good to know that people are enjoying it, because we really enjoy playing it live. It’s a real breath of fresh air for us as well.
The Neversphere: There’s some beautiful writing and it’s come to maturity on that single. It has enough mystery to give it power, which is a hard thing to do in music.
Ben: I wanted to give it enough ambiguity so people could apply it to their lives. That style of writing where you’re honest, and you put it all on the table for everyone to see. It’s funny how my writing is so autobiographical, but I’m also quite a private person. I started writing in metaphors because I used to write songs about people that were really close to me, and I never wanted them to know that the song was about them. I really enjoyed finding an analogy of something that can flush out a situation.
The Neversphere: I think every good performer needs a bag of spells to sing to people. Do you know what I mean?
Ben: I like that, I like bag of spells.
The Neversphere: On ‘Dinosaurs’ you say ‘I know how it ends for the people in the parking lot.’ Is there a sense of a rejection of the small scope of the suburbs on this song, as well as familiarity and battle for independence here?
Ben: A car park is just an analogy for when you have your allotted little space. In my head, it was jammed up, nowhere to go, like you’re in a packed parking lot. That really gridded lifestyle. I hate the feeling of finishing your day and you’ve achieved nothing.
The Neversphere: On ‘Extinction’ it sounds like you’re yearning for a partner in crime, a person he can share your intense internal life with, and his outward ambition for the band. Are you also asking for a witness, an extension of yourself, and does that drive unhealthy relationships in your life also?
Ben: For me, all of those negative things can be completely remedied by one good relationship in your life. If you’ve got one person on your side who’s batting for you, a really good relationship, then it makes everything pale in comparison. So I wanted this kind of flip side to the coin, ’cause I didn’t wanna end it on such a grim note. That catharsis after the tension of ‘Dinosaurs’.
The Neversphere: I think you use your primary romantic relationship as a safe place to enact the trauma of your past. Does that complicate your romantic relationship as time goes on?
Ben: That sounds like you’ve listened to it and know a lot about my life. That’s pretty spot-on.
Yeah, I think ‘Alchemy’ … I wanted to dip one foot into the past, that ‘I always felt I deserved less’
Section was just a quick negative reflection, before returning with a positive spin. I hadn’t done it before, so I’m glad that it translated. I didn’t grow up in a house where I spoke about feelings or anything like that. It was always yelled or screamed. I think that was probably a huge element in turning to music and songwriting as a bit of a refuge from a tumultuous childhood.
This album was written when I took a real focus on having strong routine in my life – I have been working on my vices. I guess your personal relationships will always be a playground for your past neurosis…
But it’s up to the individual to control what they bring to the table.
St. Leonards Album Tour
Tickets available now
Friday May 11
The Saloon Bar, Launceston
With The Saxsons, Sumner, The Protagonists & FLXW
Saturday May 12
Hobart Brewing Co., Hobart
With Sumner, Squid Fishing & Dog Dreams
Friday May 25
Crowbar, Brisbane *NEW SHOW
With Beth Lucas, Brief Habits & Deluso
Saturday May 26
The Chippo Hotel *NEW SHOW
With Antonia &The Lazy Susans, The Flying So High-Os, Sportsbra, Jack R Reilly & Cry Club
Saturday June 2
The Edinburgh Castle, Adelaide
With Bec Stevens, No Oaths & Madura Green
Friday June 7
Amplifier Bar, Perth
With Flower Mouth, Sly Withers & Axe Girl
Saturday June 8
Mojos Bar, Fremantle
With Flowermouth, Trolley Boy & more TBA
Saturday June 16
The Corner Hotel, Melbourne *SELLING FAST
With OSLOW, Just About Done, Max Quinn