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Penelope Two-Five make their mark with debut album 'Alkali'

22 May 2020 | 10:44 am | Emma Jones

Brisbane's Penelope Two-Five make a statement with their impressive debut album, Alkali, and prove they're ready for whatever their next step is.

Brisbane's PENELOPE TWO-FIVE make music that completely captivates you. From the full-bodied production of Shannon Mavrik to the sometimes soaring, sometimes heart-wrenching vocals of Cam Lee, their music doesn't sit neatly in one box. It encompasses not just elements of house and techno as well as intense, vulnerable lyricism, but also elements of the city of Brisbane around them and the thriving community in which they exist.

Having cut their teeth in the small but connected underground scene in their hometown, they've more recently graduated to national acclaim. They've delivered mixes for our own show on FBi Radio, as well as triple j, and played shows across the country to a growing, loyal fanbase. And rightly so. To witness a Penelope Two-Five show is to be swept up into the world they create on stage: dark, emotive, intense and utterly riveting. Lee's voice is like no other, and Mavrik effortlessly provides rich, detailed and meticulous production to underpin and amplify this palpable emotionality. This has never been more evident than on their recently released debut album, Alkali.

Across eleven tracks, Alkali is a journey of intoxicating, hazy dance music. The duo move their way through a multitude of different sounds, never staying in one place for two long but always in control. From the heavenly opening of 'Exchange Of' through to the racing, propulsive 'Two Way Mirror', and the sacred moments of the hard-hitting grand finale in 'Observable Universe', Alkali is a masterclass in creating music that can exist in multiple places at once. Its a varied and deliberate record that seamlessly switches up styles from Detroit or 90s house to dark and atmospheric techno and everything in between. It also makes a statement -like any good debut record should- that this is a band that has fully arrived. With a slew of releases already under their belt, there's an air of self-assuredness in Alkali that can only come from pushing oneself further and further, and it's this that makes it such a gripping, exhilarating album to listen to. Obviously circumstances out of their control has prohibited Penelope Two-Five from unleashing this on a dancefloor where it can truly take flight, but when they finally can it will be one for the history books.

Penelope Two-Five are a vital piece of the evolving Brisbane music scene, and their long awaited debut album is as impressive as debut releases come. They're a duo set on not only bringing their community with them and shining a deserving spotlight on those around them also doing great things, but also set on pushing themselves and their sound to new heights. With Alkali, they hit their stride and, as they describe in our interview, finally make music they want to hear themselves. With the world on pause for the foreseeable future, there is one thing for certain: Penelope Two-Five are ready to go, and now they have the album to prove it.

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It would be a strange time to be releasing music that is so fundamentally entrenched in connecting with others. Was it bittersweet to release this record and not be able to connect with people in a physical way? 

Cam Lee: I think over the past couple of years, we've shown that the music sounds good in recorded format but I think our strength is definitely in the live situation. People can actually feel it a bit more and it's more encompassing in the atmosphere rather than just, "It sounds really good in my headphones." I think that mixture of the energy of live vocals and big beats is pretty unbeatable in that live arena. I'm definitely excited for when we can launch it in that live space.

The record has existed in some form for a long time. How have the tracks evolved over that time? Hav they been kept pristine from the time you made them, or do you go back and revisit them to bring them into the future?

Shannon Mavrik: As we progress, it just changes. Especially with the old stuff, like our Centre Source release is just house. Now it's completely evolved and is more achieving the stuff I actually like listening to. As you get better, you get closer and closer to that stuff you listen to. It evolves with learning and actually making sounds you want to make. Before, when I'm getting started it's a bit more rough and raw. Now I'm getting more to where I always saw it.

The thing I love about your music in general is how expansive and experiential it is. Why is it so important for you to create music like that and what is it about this music that keeps you coming back to these sounds, and chasing these moments?

Shannon: There's just something about a live show and live vocals that is just more than any DJ set. Don't get me wrong, I've seen huge DJs go off at some great gigs. But it's just that live element sometimes pumps people up more. When you make those tunes, you can feel like, "If I heard this live, it would be pretty fun!"

There is something so powerful about techno and house anyway, but then you add in your amazing lyrics and the incredible vocals and it just evolves into something else entirely. Do you make music with a particular setting or moment in mind?

Shannon: We just find our way as we go. It might be a little different with the lyrics but when I'm making music, if it sounds cool, it sounds cool. I'm not aiming for happy or sad, I'm not trying to evoke things in my production. I just do stuff that I think sounds like it works, it's not meant to be anything too specific.

Cam: When we first started out and I was trying to write lyrics, I found I was more specific or trying to aim my message which was just my stream of consciousness. I think it turned into me just interpreting what I was seeing day to day and how things would make me feel rather than, "I'm going to write a song specifically about being happy, or being sad, or my girlfriend left." It's just a stream of consciousness and if I thought it evoked the right meaning, I would roll with that. I think the whole process is a bit more natural than trying to force something or force a certain scenario.

When its created naturally without an intent in mind, you keep the authenticity there. People are able to connect in a deeper way. You can hear when someone's tried to make a banger or a sad song and it lacks something. Especially in electronic music, it can sometimes lose that emotional quality. Would you agree?

Shannon: Definitely. If you set out to make a banger for example, there's going to be a certain kind of crowd who loves bangers. We all love bangers! But if you make something truly different, it definitely comes across like that. I've noticed with myself, if I'm forcing myself to make a certain sound, it sounds "forced." I'm not good enough yet to force my way into anything, it has to come naturally or otherwise it will sound forced and more plastic, not what I'd rather be making.

Almost like "cold" in a way?

Shannon: A little bit cold! That's a good way of putting it. But then again, I've been proven wrong and I've forced myself to do something and then maybe Cam has sung over it and I've liked it more? But again, that's his own natural thing to it. It's definitely more cold if I set out to make something a certain way.

Some of the lyrics and the way you sing, Cam, it is really vulnerable and quite emotional. Your band is so community focused and you're often playing in front of all your friends, and sometimes it's harder to be more emotional in front of people that know you really well. Have you ever struggled with that, or is easier to be able to bring these songs to friends?

Cam: As soon as I started recording this, I was like, "This really is just bearing your straight up soul to everyone." I found that with singing anyway because you can get into that super vulnerable position, but thankfully we have a super supportive bunch of mates that is so widespread so we've got a really good hype crew that seems to come to everything. Even when we play down in Melbourne, there's usually ten of our pretty close mates there who bring the energy to rest of the crowd as well. We're not trying to fight this battle trying to get this new audience on board. They can sense the energy from our mates that are already there so it speeds up the process a little bit. I think, personally, I just tap into this side of my persona that isn't afraid. I feel like as soon as you feel that hesitation or anxiety, that's when you can't convince anyone that you're not afraid. You have to trick yourself to be like, "It's no worries, you're just singing! No biggie!" When it can be a biggie.

Just a casual bearing of the soul, it's no big deal. Super chill. 

Cam: Basically!

That's a big part of your band and how you've got to where you are. The community focus is so integral to this story. Can we throw it back to the days when you first started and tell me a bit about that? 

Shannon: At the time I was producing essentially nothing because I was so new to it all. I met Cam and he said he was making stuff, and I said we should jam sometime. I told Cam that I had all these songs I'd like some singing over and asked if he knew anyone who could sing. He was like, "I can sing! I've been classically trained!" It really started out very like ANDRAS & OSCAR, super house-y stuff. I was always more drawn to darker stuff. Even though we did some house-y stuff initially, there were always these really dark tracks we had and I think we just grew from there.

It goes back to that authenticity and the way you've always approached your music. It's all happened really naturally and organically. Is that how it feels on your end?

Cam: Yeah definitely! For me anyway, it feels like from the beginning, I was excited to start singing again but I'd start singing jibberish and be like, "Oh no, this isn't any fun." But getting used to each other, especially over those first few tracks made it more fun. Then we started getting gigs, it was gratifying to know we were doing something that people enjoyed — not just us.

You’ve got artwork by Nadeem Tiafau, releases via Centre Source with Kristian Streiner, Hannah Doody is your manager, you have a collab with Das Druid of course, Charles Murdoch was involved in this record as well. It’s all very community focused with all these people from Brisbane being involved in the journey so far. What does this extra community involvement mean to you personally and how does having such an involved community help you as artists?

Shannon: Especially with house and techno, even though we don't necessarily fit that box, it's not the biggest scene but its very close. For us to have big shows here and have one sold out, it's the same people that keep coming. They want us to go further, it's pretty cool. The thing is as well, we also want to represent people from Brisbane who are awesome within the whole scene. We've got Nadeem who does artwork, we've Charles to master. In our Purple Sneakers mix, we tried to include a few Brisbane artists. We just want to push it because they've really helped us and they want to grow what we want to grow essentially, and maybe make something of our own. As far as I know, Brisbane isn't known for its super big underground house and techno scenes.

Cam: That's a motivation for me as well and that's why I work so hard at this and why I started throwing warehouse parties in the first place. I run these parties with Nadeem called PRAY TELL to kind of put Brisbane on that platform. I would notice when big international acts come, you could see the disinterest a few years ago. The vibe has definitely increased in the last couple of years but I would feel this emptiness coming from Brisbane in terms of there was this disjointed feeling from everyone. But as soon as everyone was like, "We're all in this together," our scene is so small that everyone just comes to everything. All the artists, we're like, "Do your thing, we're here to support you." I think that's what differentiates Brisbane from a lot of other cities worldwide: we have this really tight knit community. When international artists come now, it doesn't really matter how many people are there, the vibe is always huge.

Penelope Two-Five's debut album, Alkali, is out now.

Interview by Emma Jones

Image: Supplied