Brisbane trio The Goon Sax – Louis Forster, James Harrison, and Riley Jones – were in high school when their debut album, 2016’s Up to Anything, was released, and they were still in their teens when its follow-up came out two years later. All three members take turns writing, singing, and playing each instrument, and 2018’s We’re Not Talking saw them honing in their endearingly raw brand of guitar-pop as well as their conversational style of songwriting and delivery – in conversation with each other and the listener, certainly, but also with the greater lineage of alternative and pop music that they both are influenced by and belong to. Their new album and first for Matador, Mirror II – out today – is a marvel of craft, dynamism, and emotion: aided by producer John Parish (PJ Harvey, Aldous Harding, Dry Cleaning), they’ve managed to expand on the eclecticism of its predecessor while delivering their most infectiously catchy collection of songs yet, a record as mature as it is playful and as relatable as it is surreal and larger-than-life. Despite the group’s diverse sensibilities and idiosyncratic taste, they’ve come through sounding more confident and in sync than ever.
We caught up with The Goon Sax for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the process of making Mirror II, how their different perspectives fed into the album, and more.
It took you three years to write and record this album, and you spent quite a bit of time apart during that period. I’m wondering if that affected your creative process in any way compared to your previous releases.
Louis Forster: Yeah, I think it did. When we’re together, we kind of share what we’re listening to and what we’re experiencing constantly, and I think that was the first time that all three of us went off entirely in our own directions and spent some time alone, just discovering new things independently of each other. And I think it was important for us all to do that alone and it gave us more of a personal identity within the record, but also changed the way that we play together and slot in together, in that we maybe have more of an idea about ourselves – not just the band as a whole, but the parts that make it up, and how we can be the strongest and push each other the furthest.
Yeah, I think it was really valuable. I didn’t even realize it at the time, you know, I’m kind of realizing that more now, even talking about it over these interviews. I’m like, “Oh yeah, all of those sounds on the record that are from Riley and Jim doing that and playing in this band and jamming with this person,” and then I’m like, “Oh, and all those other sounds and literary references are from things that I got into or shows that I went to overseas.” And the way they came together, I think I was too close for a long time to really see how that happened.
Riley Jones: I think it just happens very naturally, and then when you look back you can kind of connect all the dots. But at the time, you’re just doing whatever feels right.
You’ve said that it was almost like going back to square one with this album, and musically, it feels like a new beginning as well. Do you feel like that approach helped you reconnect with your roots, in a way, or did it also bring out new things that you didn’t realize were there before?
LF: I think it definitely did both of those things. Initially we kind of pushed our sound as far as we could possibly take it, until we almost sounded completely recognizable. It was like we kind of tore the band apart until there was almost nothing left. And I think then we got back into a lot of things that we were listening to when we first started the band, and they helped us understand the free-jazz and no-wave and disco influences, or even hip hop influences, and we were able to make sense of them through the lens of the stuff that we were into when we started. It’s like, when you completely lose yourself, it means that you have to find the essence of who you are. There’s a point of expansion when you’re changing so much, which you constantly feel like you’re building on yourself, but then – I think our record is a lot about that, too: it’s about changing and allowing yourself to change and accepting that every version of yourself is valid, every outfit you put on might feel like a different person and that can be 10 people a day, and they’re all real. But there does come a point where you do sometimes wonder, you know, who am I?
RJ: I think I feel quite differently. I kind of seem to subscribe to a collective consciousness that I’m pretty sure informs all of my decisions, so I just like to trust the initial idea that comes up. Especially with this band, every decision that we made felt really intuitive. It felt like, once we got to the right option, we all unanimously knew that that was what was the song had to be. It’s almost like the songs had a voice of their own and knew what they wanted. I think when you’re collaborating, it’s easier to tap into that shared conscious creative space, because there’s the three of you interacting in a room, but then the sounds that you make are the sum of all of the parts together. There are lots of subtle ways of playing that really change the feeling of things; I think that’s what writing this album for so long for me really set in stone, was that there are lots of things out of our control, actually, or that we don’t even realize we’re doing. But because we’ve been playing together for so long, it’s come to a really solid understanding of each other as musicians.
LF: Yeah, totally agree.
James Harrison: Yeah, I think we know how to build each other’s songs, but also, like, fit into each other’s songs. Which is really important, for me, and I think for all of us. I really have enjoyed honing that skill of learning how to get the emotive parts of these guys’ songs.
RJ: James definitely brings the emotion. Like, you can kind of see when he’s playing his bass or guitar, he’s always conjuring something that seems like it’s really powerful and he’s not sure if his body will be able to handle it, but somehow he pulls through, and the song – it just cuts, you know, it’s just so much more emotional than you thought it could be.
LF: I remember me and Riley having a conversation on the phone almost a year ago now, where we were talking about how the moments that we’re most proud of in ourselves on this record are where we really expanded each other’s songs. Whether sometimes that is just kind of slotting into something and taking up barely any space but holding down a foundation for the melody, or writing a riff that completely changes something, you feel so much gratitude when your friends have written something beautiful and they give you the opportunity to play on it and to contribute to that. It’s such an honour.
RJ: I think so. I think in this album you can hear that we had more trust in each other, or more playfulness towards working on our own songs as well. We took three years to just try things and to see if they sank or swam – and sometimes they did sink; there’s about 10 songs that we didn’t record. I don’t think they necessarily sunk, but I think we all felt in the end that we could do better, which is also a sign of a good working relationship.
I’m curious about how that extends to the themes that you explore – Louis, I think you’ve used the phrase “genuine dreaminess” to describe the album, and I think the word “genuine” is interesting, because to me, it feels like the dreamy or the surreal elements on the album are grounded in reality and genuine emotion. What do you think it is that keeps you grounded in that, instead of using the dreaminess as an escape and going completely in the other direction?
LF: You know, it’s really hard talking about lyrics, because I think we all write pretty separately and approach lyrics a little bit differently. And I can really only speak from my own writing on this record, where there were moments where I was writing a song to try and create a space for myself to escape into when I was frustrated with the real world. But at the same time, I think those spaces needed to have very real-world elements to allow that full catharsis, otherwise it would feel a little bit too removed and I don’t think it would have this guttural feeling to it. I think both are always important, and for me it’s important to toe that line. I think it was Riley who said the “genuine dreaminess” thing, and I’ve thought about that a lot as well. I think what’s genuine and what’s natural was something that we thought about a lot on this record.
RJ: For me, genuine dreaminess is about – when you reflect on anything, if you look back into the past, your recollection is always going to be very dreamlike. Because it’s super guided by your subconscious, the things that stick in our minds and things just slip away forever. Louis talks about how this album has more of an emphasis on subconscious in relation to other people, like with ‘Psychic’, for example, and with most of the songs. I think that’s kind of the key theme of the album, is this, like, subliminal communication. So I think the genuine dreaminess comes from just accepting your consciousness as a dream, like a daydream when you’re awake and then a night dream when you go to sleep. And then there’s some part of you which can acknowledge the different states, but the dream… I guess we can consider dreams as something that exists more inside of ourselves or comes out of us. And I think that’s like songwriting, really.
LF: I think that’s also trusting the subjective as well, where dreams and memories are kind put through the filter of your own brain and your own subconscious. I think there were ways in which maybe our songwriting isn’t straining to remember exactly how something happened, but it’s trusting in the blurriness of memory or dreams or drunkenness as being valid states.
RJ: And it’s not trying to sugarcoat them as well. I think on this album we’re not trying to appear a certain way, but we’re just trying to explore all these different facets or relationships or feelings, but not necessarily in a good way or a bad way.
LF: I think it’s really productive to throw out the idea of presenting yourself. A lot of the time people can get caught up in wanting to present themselves in a likable way, but I think it’s really important to explore, you know, the petty moments or the unjustified moments and look at them for what they are, rather than getting hung up on the character that you’re presenting as being likable. I think it’s very freeing if you don’t do that, because the subconscious is a lot of good and bad and everything in between all the time, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I hope that it comes across that we are trying to show that with some sense of perspective and not every thought on the record or every line is entirely what we believe. It can be something that somebody else has said, or a thought that we had for a second that then we were like, “That’s crazy,” or “That’s not right.”
RJ: Or “I was just high!” [laughter].
LF: Yeah, yeah, totally.
How do you choose which perspective or moment to try and capture, then? Because there is a kind of selective process, and in some ways it seems like you have chosen the songs or the moments that do take an almost transcendental quality.
JH: I think a lot of the songs are quite transcendental. Even in the live show we’ve tried to make it really epic and bigger than maybe ourselves, or larger than life. And that’s kind of how I felt in some of my lyrics, just observing when I feel out of my body because of the things around me or the thoughts in me.
You obviously went into these songs with different perspectives, but was there something that after the fact you realized was kind of a common through-line in your writing?
LF: It’s something we talked about a lot throughout the process of making the record, was the supernatural and love as this supernatural and powerful idea. We express it in very very different ways, but I think it’s definitely there for all of us. And I think our songs are very genuine and emotional, but there’s also a silliness and a playfulness to them. We all like pop music and rock and roll when it’s silly, in the way that T Rex is silly or in the way that Kylie Minogue is silly. And it’s so genuine at the same time, it’s completely heartfelt, but I think you can almost be more genuine and more emotional when you don’t constantly take yourself too seriously and you’re hung up on some really truthful, honest essence of yourself, but you allow yourself to go into the more far-flung corners of your personality that you maybe don’t feel all the time that are at times, you know, exuberant or whatever.
RJ: I think that a big part of it is filtered through the part where we come together at the end. It’s like you’re bringing your idea to the tribunal, in a way, and then some things stick because they feel good in the context of playing it together. We all have so many ideas for songs – Louis writes hundreds of songs; James writes hundreds of parts. And I – I don’t write songs very often, actually, but I play music a lot [laughter]. But when we come together, that’s when you know what works.
Sometimes I have ideas, more, like, aesthetically, or more in terms of the feeling of the sounds. It’s also interesting the the language that we use to communicate with each other what we mean. Because James has some music theory knowledge, but it’s not really of any use to me and Louis. We talk about music in symbols, and we talk about it maybe even more than we do the playing, which is interesting. It’s the same with the concepts: We talk about what we want to express a lot. And I think when we apply that to the music, it’s not really a conscious thing anymore; it’s just something that’s hopefully sunk into our bodies and will come out in some way.
JH: When we’re together, we really get to understand the meaning of each other’s songs and where each of us is at. So I think that’s what ties some of the lyrical concepts together, because even if we weren’t thinking of each other when we wrote them, it’s something that we all take on in practicing them.
LF: That’s something that I really realized with this record: Riley has such a different way of writing to me and Jim. She doesn’t sit down every day with a guitar for two hours; the songs almost feel like they were already written inside you in a very subconscious way. I remember you just saying, “I’m gonna sit down and write a song,” and then you do.
RJ: [laughs] Yeah.
LF: I can never confidently say that. Because it’s like you know that the song is ready; I’ve always taken it that way. It’s like, “This song’s cooking, and I’m going to sit down on this keyboard and get it out of the oven. And then in half an hour, it’ll be more or less close to done.” Which is a very enigmatic process of writing. I’ve never really seen anybody do that.
RJ: I feel like they have to come from somewhere, don’t you think? I feel like they’re written and I just have to find them. Do you think that they come out of, like, the sky? [laughs] I don’t know, where do your songs come from?
LF: I think that they come from another place as well. I’ve always seen songs kind of like fishing, like you’re casting a line into this murky… I don’t know, to me it’s a very supernatural thing, and maybe the closest thing to contact with some kind of spiritual body, where you feel like you’re drawing something out of another place and sometimes you really catch something. Sometimes you think you’ve caught something and then you lose it, you know.
That intuitiveness is something I can hear in the music as well, and a lot of these songs take the form of conversations. Do you think that’s also a result of that collaborative process and your dynamic as a band?
LF: Yeah, I think they’re a conversation in every sense, even musically sometimes. There’s songs I’ve noticed where Riley and I are both playing guitar, and Riley’s guitar style is, to me, somewhere like Keiji Haino playing Keith Richards riffs, where it’s so loose and atonal but at the same time really melodic and kind of falling in and out of structure, whereas I feel like my guitar playing is so tight and metric and restrained. And I think that’s always a conversation between this spiralling, wheezing thing and this tight structure, and they kind of flow in and out of each other. And we’ve really allowed each other to be pretty uncompromising with that stuff and understood how it exists together, but also accepting that in some moments it doesn’t work. It’s not just saying, “We should all do whatever the fuck we want and not listen to each other.” But I think our playing has become so much more of a conversation, sometimes, where one person is maybe more dominant for a moment and is telling the story and someone else is just sort of sitting back and going, “Yeah, uh huh, yeah.” [laughter]
RJ: Yeah, sometimes. It takes a while to work out what really serves the song. Sometimes you really have to pull back and that’s all it needs.
LF: Again, I can’t speak for Riley and Jim’s lyrics, but my lyrics, I don’t think there’s any song on our record that’s just my perspective or one person’s perspective. I think I became a lot more interested in the way those blend together and there being a much more loose idea of truth. Because that’s ultimately what a relationship or a dynamic or a moment is: it’s two people or many people’s perspectives all at once. And we’re always singing on each other’s songs – I think ‘Carpentry’ is the only song on the record that’s just sung by one of us. So I think in that way as well, there’s always a feeling that’s there’s two people or two voices or characters in the space.
To bring things together, I wanted to relate this to the album title – I hope it was Riley this time who said this, but you’ve talked about how it started as something almost arbitrary and then became about “reflecting on reflection,” and how we find ourselves through other people. In what ways would you say that you’re influenced by each other, and beyond that, also see yourselves more through each other and working with each other?
RJ: It’s very… complex. We’ve known each other for so long now, we’ve spent so much time together. It’s kind of like beyond friendship. It’s more like family, but it’s also something else. Like, I wonder sometimes how I how I exist outside of this context, because it’s such a huge part of my life. And I think that I maybe lean on James and Louis just as I go about, you know, doing my thing in the world. I kind of always know that they’re there in some way. And I think that they’re a huge part of how I present myself too, not because I always say, “Yeah, I’m in this band” to everybody I meet. Which, actually, I kind of do. [laughter] But just in terms of their demeanors; it’s something that I definitely carry with me. Like, the people that you get to understand first kind of inform your understanding of everybody else in the world.
LF: I totally second that. Sometimes the clothes I wear are informed by the fact that I’ll be standing next to Jim and Riley and what they’re wearing. It’s a conversation where we’re responding to each other in every element of ourselves. And recently, Riley’s been in the UK for a while and we haven’t been doing so much band stuff physically, and I noticed – I don’t know, it’s different when you’re not existing in the context of each other. But at the same time, I completely agree with what Riley says, it is always there.
We really learned how to play music from playing together, and there’s a lot of instruments that we play in this band that none of us really played a whole lot before. I feel like I learned how to play lead guitar over Riley’s drumming and Jim’s bass playing, and I think that’s true for all of us. It’s like going to primary school together and learning how to read and write from reading each other’s texts or something.
JH: I’d have to also third all of that. [laughter] You guys have put it really nicely.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.