In case you missed it, Australia and the surrounding areas have been producing some of the most fun and heartfelt indie music in the past decade. Groups like Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever have turned the oft overlooked region into a must watch. But even the watchful may have missed out on Quivers, a self described “Ex-tasmanian cathartic boygirl jangle” band that has quietly been making some of the most interesting music on the island over the past few years. We spoke with Quivers frontman Sam Nicholson for a quick interview following the release of their latest single “You’re Not Always on My Mind” in advance of their appearance at SXSW and accompanying shows. Be sure to give them a listen and catch them if you’re in the area!
Drew: Your music video for “You’re Not Always on My Mind” shows you in an abandoned landscape near Tasmania. What about that location drew you to it?
Sam: We filmed the video on Maria Island up the East Coast of Tasmania, where myself and Mike in the band are originally from. Maria is a tiny isolated island that was home to Puthikwilayti people for over 40,000 years, and then in the last 200 has been a penal colony, farms and factories, and now a pretty quiet national park. Each year my family goes and stays in the old convict penitentiary cells which are without electricity. It feels timeless place. I’ve been there so many times I forget how strange a location it can be on film; tame wombats without any predators, convict ruins, fossilized cliffs and a factory that was used as target practice for WW2 bomber pilots. Nina and I spent half a week filming and snorkelling and swimming. Best film-shoot I’ve ever heard of. Nina did get bitten by a wombat though – while filming a wombat came and nuzzled her, then licked her, then took a bite. Didn’t break the skin, we think it was just curious. We caught it all on camera. Weird animals wombats, their scats (poos) are cube shaped so when wombats mark out territory it doesn’t roll off the rocks.
Drew: How do you feel your surroundings have influenced the sound of your music?
I feel like it’s hard to know if surroundings influence us or we project how we are feeling onto the surroundings. Just thinking about Maria Island now, and Tasmania too, the question Tasmanian artists often get is about isolation. Isolation seems a two-sided coin to me- some days it helps because without distraction you are forced to make music with your friends just because what else can you do? Then other days you flip the coin and wish you could just be swept up in a big city of distractions and unfamiliar lights and get lost in something else. I moved between Hobart and London and Beijing because they seemed like opposite extremes to me. Now we are in Melbourne and there’s a really strong music community to get immersed in. It’s between the extremes. Lots of bands to inspire you and waterholes to escape to.
Drew: The direction of your newest single is lighter than your previous album, what led to that change in perspective?
It’s hard to say. Our debut album “We’ll Go Riding on The Hearses” was a rush of songs after losing my brother Tom in a free-diving accident. I had a few years break from music after the accident because I wanted to only share songs that put people together rather than pulled them apart by staying in the darkness too long. All those songs are about Tom but also about other people. If people don’t know that backstory I’d want them to hopefully find their own stories in the stories they hear in it. It’s all fact and fiction – as I told Mum when she asked about a cocaine lyric. I probably protected myself a bit by making that album quickly with friends, keeping it LOFI and putting some dark humour in it. Making those songs with those people helped me so much. This new single and the songs we are preparing for a new release are moving further and further away from the darker times.
The band we have now has also dragged us towards the light I think! Michael Panton is still there on lead guitars, and then there’s Bella Quinlan on bass/vocals and Holly Thomas on drums/vocals. It feels great that the end on YNAOMM is all about Bella and Holly singing while Mike and I get to just chime away on guitars. I’m really excited at the moment about combining our voices in new ways on new songs and also just being in the USA with these great people (and also our old Hobart/Scottish friend Phil McPhee who is joining us on keys/vocals for SXSW). They are kind and fun people to be around and I can’t believe my luck that they are willing to be part of these ramshackle adventures.
It might also be that I’ve been DJing a lot since I moved to Melbourne, playing 45s of older soul and 80s Australian pop. When we went on tour to Canada I brought back nearly a hundred 45s! I’m way too excited to search for 45s on this upcoming US trip to SXSW. After the festival I’m going to road-trip around the south with some friends and I hope they don’t mind if I spend whole days in record stores. You come out with a headache and the sun hurts your eyes. Listening to so many pop 45s might have lightened me up though. I want to write songs now that are immediate but not too obvious (hopefully!). So many of the records I love combine melancholy and euphoria. Lyrically for YNAOMM I think I stole from 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”. 10cc because YNAOMM is also a song about how much you are not thinking about someone. Then Kylie’ Minogue’s trick to have that melody with a line about someone getting stuck in your head is just the best thing ever. In an ideal world I would like to write 5% of a Kylie song and put that on my gravestone. So many of the sounds I love do that melancholy feeling too – Peter Buck’s 80s REM guitars or how Bruce Springsteen would combine a wavering synth line with a piano. My first CD was a Springsteen best of that my brother stole from me. He denies it. Please give it back Zac.
Drew: Dream and jangle pop has had a resurgence lately in the indie world, what new ideas and themes are you hoping to add to the genre?
I don’t want to ever pretend we are bringing something new but I do like making music that sounds jangly and dream-like but is about real things and dangerously in the real world of life sometimes going to shit. There’s a lot of humour hidden in the dark I think. I’d prefer catharsis than carefree. I sound like the worst person at the bar right now. I do also like having a good time some of the time. You can’t have a good time all of the time though!
Drew: If you were to release an album of covers, what are three of the songs that would be on it, and what would you do differently from the original?
Each tour we’ve done we’ve practised one cover. For Canada it was my hero Chad Van Gaalen’s “Rabid Bits of Time”, for New Zealand it was Fleetwood Mac’s “Save Me A Place”, and other times we’ve covered Blur (Tender), The Church (Under the Milky Way) and Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose (It’s Too Late To Turn Back Now). It’s impossible to do a good song justice so we just sing it in our own way and stretch out the strands of the song if we can. I’d have to choose Chad VG, Fleetwood Mac + Cornelius Rose & Sister Rose I think. We never keep the same structure but we also don’t change all that much. Covers are usually a time when everyone in the band steps in to sing. Maybe someone in the audience too if we are lucky. I love the way The Replacements and Yo La Tengo do covers – haphazardly but always with love.
Drew: If you could tour with any currently active band, who would it be, why them?
Big Thief, Deer Tick, Guided By Voices or Sharon Van Etten! Big Thief’s debut record kicked me in the guts in the best way and Adrienne’s song writing floors me. The guitar interplay and those lyrics and a band that is muscular and fragile. Deer Tick is the sort of band I would love to trail the USA with, see it through their eyes. Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard was a teacher (like me!) and has the best microphone tricks in the business. Sharon Van Etten played the same tiny, amazing Tasmanian festival as us called ‘Panama’ once and then when I DJ’d records there she danced! It made me so happy. She seems just like the most genuine person, a song writing hero who is only ever herself though she keeps us guessing what happens next. “Comeback Kid” is stuck in my head every single day.
Drew: Oftentimes contemporaries and peers can help influence the music you make, which of your peers would you like to shout out as a major influence on your sound, and how did they help shape your sound?
I can’t say sound-wise, can I answer about a band that changed our outlook? There’s a band here in Melbourne, The Ocean Party, who are a tight gang of songwriters who constantly record, release and tour their lovelorn but questioning guitar pop. They are a big influence in their approach; they have built over time connections all around regional Australia and overseas through always committing to playing the smaller places careerist bands might overlook. There’s something amazing about that, how many times they’ll go back to a smaller place to play in a pub two nights in a row. That to me is the dream. It is also probably how they collect so many stories to write so many good songs. They recently had a really tragic loss in the band but I feel it’s not my place to talk about that. What I will say though is go check them out (and while you are at it check out Cool Sounds and maybe our Tasmanian faves The Native Cats).
Drew: Coming from Australia, I’m sure there’s a number of bands you know of that haven’t gotten much shine over here in America, who, aside from you, should Americans be checking out from Australia? (and don’t say Keith Urban)
Definitely those I just mentioned. I feel like so many Australian songwriters have rightly found the international spotlight recently, for example Julia Jacklin whose new album is really captivating. Bella Quinlan from the band also has a solo project you can check out under her own name, it’s amazing to see how her voice and songs silence a room and make people forget about everything else. We are lucky to have her. Around Melbourne and Hobart there are so many that should get more spotlight soon too, such as Nat Vazer, Hannah Blackburn, and my friends’ band The Sunday League who I think make the very best Australiana power pop I ever did hear. It’s great to see Hobart’s Andrew Swayze & The Ghosts taking their catchy as hell melodic hard pop to Rough Trade Records too.
Drew: What, in general, is your outlook on the music landscape now? With streaming becoming so ubiquitous and making music far less elitist, more people are being exposed to more things, do you think this has been a good thing or has it altered the music landscape to be unrecognizable?
I love that Spotify tells us Portugal is into this new song. Well 30 or so people haha. I love that anyone, anywhere can hear anything at anytime. It’s great that playlists are making hearing new music really accessible. Growing up I only heard the one radio station (Triple J) or what was coming through the walls as my brothers listened to metal or my sister listened to REM. I’m so happy my first room was closer to my sister’s REM collection. All I really want from music is to write songs and play with friends and meet people all over the world. Spotify is pretty amazing if it can help more low-key DIY bands reach people and make touring possible for more bands.
The main thing that scares me though is that we get paralysed by choice or become so complacent that streamed music becomes background music. If we choose playlists like “Roadtrip chill” will we never get surprised by a song or have something unexpected make us pull the car over and really listen? Will more bands choose song structures and production that grab the most listeners in the first 30 seconds? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it with this new YNAOMM song. I wanted it all to kick in straight away. I wanted it to sound as HIFI as the songs around it for once. You can’ mess around unless you already have a fanbase with that patience. Or unless you truly just write and don’t mind about whether you reach people or not. I would love to be that pure.
Drew: Most artists get their experiences and influences from more than just music, what books and movies have you enjoyed lately, and how do you think non-music media has affected your sound?
I’ve finally read Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” about POWs during WW2, and some musician’s books (Patti Smith, Tim Rogers), but I couldn’t say if that influences things. Patti Smith’s second book mentioned coffee so many times I’ve probably started drinking more in the hope I’ll write better. It mostly has just made getting to sleep harder. I listen to a lot of Song Exploder podcasts while running and that probably has helped me make demos in new ways- after hearing songwriters take apart how they write and record songs. The big thing was realizing that lots of respected producers will still just use one mic to build their ideas.
Drew: And finally, when you aren’t making music what are some of your favorite things to do and pass the time?
I run a fair bit, and had this idea that I would use Google Maps to spell out words with my running but then realized someone else is already doing that. Melbourne also has a lot of bike paths, rivers and swimming holes further out so summer has been all about that. These things and collecting records! We will be at SXSW so soon and I am as excited about records and small bars and diners and swimming in waterholes across the south as playing the shows. Where is good?
Thanks to Quivers and Sam for the excellent interview, be sure to check them out at SXSW and at the following dates and locations. If you have any recommendations for places they should stop at while on tour, drop a line in the comments!