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Beginnings, emotions and what's still to come: Getting to know Sunscreen

17 November 2017 | 11:54 am | Emma Jones

Australia is going through a bit of a guitar-pop renaissance at the moment, but with a slight twist. Instead of the typical thrash pop, the bands making moves now are making articulate, intricate music that isn't scared of emotional content, and finds power in being vulnerable. One such act is SUNSCREEN. The Sydney four-piece mix catchy riffs and dreamy vocals to create a new sound in the indie-pop landscape.

Opting to carve out a space of their own instead of fitting in with the slew of others, Sunscreen deliver accessible and relatable music about growing up and all the highs and lows that come with that period in everyone's lives. Their debut EP, Just A Drop, (which is out today) is a frank portrait of being a 20-something and all the bullshit that 20-somethings deal with. From the lead single, 'Voices', that details the trials of anxiety, to newer single 'Tide' that tackles more existential themes, Sunscreen's frontwoman and songwriter, Sarah Sykes, offers up her own personal perspectives on life and makes damn fine songs while she's at it.

With her Debby Harry-esque vocals, Sykes gets real with her life, sharing her thoughts and feelings through song, and with Alexander McDonald assisting her tell her tale as well as laying down the guitar, Jett Amity on bass and Hugo Levingston on drums, the four-piece offer up something special that's not quite been achieved yet in the dreamy, indie-pop world. Sunscreen offer up life stories crafted as a form of therapy, and by doing so, create a world where it's powerful to be vulnerable and brave to be emotional. Having released their EP via Spunk Records and Dinosaur City Records today, we had a quick chat with Sykes to talk all about Just A Drop, her inspiration from PJ Harvey, using music as therapy and what's still to come.

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Sarah, you spoke about how the band first felt fully formed when you played at King St Crawl. That wasn’t too long ago, and you’ve played some major shows since then (BIGSOUND, supporting DMA’s) - how does it feel now, looking back on that first show? Does it feel like the band has really solidified since then to become what it is now?

Yes, absolutely. The band has solidified a lot - both in the sense that we’ve become stronger as a unit, and also in the way that we’ve discovered to a greater extent where our tastes and writing styles [are at]. As scary as it is, think it’s really important to get up and play live in the early stages of a band or musical project. It’s the only way you’re going to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. And the band develops from there. At that first King St Crawl show, I had a panic attack both before and after we played. It wasn’t easy. A year later, I feel a million times more comfortable on a stage. I think playing live is just like any other skill you work on - it only gets better with practice.

Similarly in terms of writing, I feel like we’ve really identified what kind of sound we want to be making, or at least we’ve found the general direction we want to be going in. In the early stages we didn’t really know, due to being new to everything, but also due to the restrictions we had. For example, when we started Alex played bass, because we didn’t have a bass player. However now he is the full time lead guitarist, and a lot of our new songs are based on his guitar lines. And that’s where our music goes now. You realise over time what works and what doesn’t.

You’ve also spoken about how jamming together serves as a type of therapy for you all - what is it about this that’s so cathartic?

I’ve played music my whole life so this is hard to deconstruct and put into words, haha. But I’ll do my best. I think jamming is so relaxing and therapeutic for us because it allows us to forget about a lot of things - the stress of the day, the smaller problems, et cetera, and directs our focus into the thing we are creating in the moment, on the spot. It’s exciting when it feels like you are creating something from nothing - from one tiny musical idea, that you build upon, until it ends up in a totally different place or even becomes a pop song. It’s very encouraging. Sometimes I’ll work nine-to-five and have a really shit day and feel really frustrated, but then I’ll go to band practice and we’ll jam and come up with something cool and exciting on the spot, when we’re jamming all together. And suddenly I’ll feel productive, like my day wasn’t totally wasted. My mum works in an old people’s home as a companion and always talks about the term ‘diversional therapy’, or anything that prompts us to ‘forget about ourselves’. I doubt myself so much and jamming does make me forget about myself, when I’m deeply focused and in the moment, and this is a really good thing.

It’s also really nice to feel like you’re a part of something, as lame as that sounds. Every single Sunscreen song is a product of us jamming together - they would never have been written if we didn’t just just play stuff together and see what happens.

I really love the inspiration that you draw from PJ Harvey. I think there’s a certain power that women attain when they’re not afraid of being vulnerable and emotional, through music or otherwise. Do you feel this power when you’re performing and singing about emotional issues in your music?

I totally agree - women harness a lot of power when they’re not afraid to express their emotions, musically or otherwise. Women throughout history have also been conditioned to apologise for being emotional. I hate the idea that emotional vulnerability equals weakness. To me, at least artistically, it is the direct opposite. There’s a reason why artists like Patti Smith changed the world. Everyone in the world feels helpless and alone at some stage or another, and people want to connect with music that lets them know they’re not alone, even if momentarily. I’m not afraid of darkness and emotional vulnerability in my music for this reason.

I have felt powerful at times when performing and singing about highly emotional issues. However, at times I’ve also felt really nervous and intimidated to sing emotional, sad songs. This usually happens when I over-analyse the audience, and get very self-critical. I’ll look at the crowd and think, ‘Oh my god, do people think I’m just whinging and complaining? Do people wish I was playing something happier?’ It’s hard to keep my mind on track sometimes. I have little coping strategies when my brain goes down that path, like turning around and looking at the band, and focusing on song and the reasons I’m playing it. And remembering that if people actually really disliked what I was playing they would leave. The performances where I can hold on to my conviction are the ones I feel strongest in. I think any artist has to be unapologetic about how emotional they are.

Sorry, I didn’t talk about PJ Harvey in that response. But I really love PJ Harvey, you are right. My favourite albums of hers are Dry and Is This Desire. They inspired me to pick up a guitar a few years ago and write some angsty songs, when I only knew how to play about two chords. That said, I love her new stuff too. I love how she evolves and isn’t scared to cover new territory as she grows older. I saw her in Sydney earlier this year, and she was singing with her hands up in the air, holding her up saxophone in one. PJ Harvey doesn’t apologise for emotion.

You’ve now got your debut EP coming out, and it’s split between Dinosaur City and Spunk - how have these two labels and communities helped you get to this point?

The two record labels have helped me in different ways, and I’m so happy that I can work with them both, and that they can collaborate together, over this release. I was first introduced to Spunk Records when my other band Flowertruck got signed to them back in 2015. Upon this happening, I suddenly realised that so many of my favourite Australian artists were signed to Spunk - The Ocean Party, and bands I’d loved through my teenage years like Firekites and The Middle East. Aaron Curnow, who runs Spunk, has great taste and is really good at identifying potential in new projects, I think. He sees good music for what it is and has faith in it. Being on Spunk with Flowertruck was really cool because it gave me an insight into what it meant to be on an indie record label. And I’m very thankful, of course, for the Flowertruck connection to Spunk, as it meant that Sunscreen was on Aaron’s radar when I started it.

Dinosaur City Records, on the other hand, has been a close ally of Sunscreen from the beginning. It’s run by Cody Munro Moore and Jordanne Chant, two of my close friends. Cody included our first proper single Voices on the Dinosaur City Mixtape #2, a compilation of new songs from new Sydney artists that was released in early 2017. Having the song on the mixtape, slotted in between other people’s new songs, gave me a lot of confidence and helped relieve some of my fears of getting it out into the world. DCR has given us a lot of support and continues to give us support - whether it’s sending our tracks to radio, helping me book gigs, or designing us posters. Cody and Jordanne are really switched on and they’re going to do a lot of really cool things.

It’s exciting that the EP is about to drop, but these songs are actually quite old (about a year and a half). How does it feel to be revisiting these tracks and have them out in the world now, despite the fact they might be covering issues that aren’t around anymore?

It feels good knowing that they’ll be seeing the light of day! When I wrote the first half of ‘Arms’ for example, the second track on the EP, I doubted whether any other human being would hear it, let alone whether it would ever be released. I agree that it’s a strange concept, singing about issues and emotional situations that don’t exist any more. But I’ve found that if a song addresses issues that once meant something to you, your mind still gets cast back to that time period when you sing it, and sometimes you can still feel those said emotions, even if they’re not real in your life any more. You can travel back in time with some songs. It’s kind of like scrolling back through your tagged photos on Facebook. Even when I don’t feel the emotions in question any more, when I sing the song I can still remember the days when I felt them so intensely.

In some instances as well, the meaning of songs can change over time, in the same way that the person the song is about can change. In the past I’ve written really intense love songs, like the end part of Voices. And I’ve moved on romantically from that person, and suddenly when I’m singing the song I’ll think about someone else. Life changes. I see songs like photographs - they’re fleeting sentiments, that just reflect a snapshot in time. Songs are always relics of the past.

You’ve spoken about how this EP is a bit darker too, than ‘Voices’ - why do you think this is? Is this a direction we can expect you to follow on with future releases, or is it purely from the influences at the time?

I’m not really sure why the EP is darker than Voices. However my best bet would be that the EP is a collection of songs I wrote over years, often in dark times. Stress, uncertainty, and sadness often prompt you to write music and express your emotions more than feelings of happiness do. I feel like the EP tracks came out easily because they were written in harder times. Voices is a super bright sounding song b chance, because the guys started playing a really fast-paced beat one day. And at the time I had this crazy crush on someone but my anxiety kept preventing me from acting on it, so I wrote the lyrics that night. I feel guilty sometimes when I worry that people will hear Voices and think all our music is at that super fast tempo. It totally isn’t! Haha. I wish it was.

Lastly, what we can expect next from Sunscreen?

We’re playing a bunch of cool shows in early 2018, including our first show in Melbourne ;) But the number one thing we’re going to focus on in the new year is the album. We plan to finish writing our debut album, and start recording it, as soon as possible. It’s not far off!

'Just a Drop' is available Nov 17 on Spunk and Dinosaur City Records.

Catch Sunscreen at these shows:

Nov 25 - Newcastle at The Commons

Dec 1 - Sydney at Botany View Hotel

Dec 10 - Wollongong at North Wollongong Hotel

Dec 17 - Newcastle at the Lock Up

Image: Daisy Hofstetter

Interview by Emma Jones