School's Out Forever

31 July 2013 | 6:15 am | Samson McDougall

“Sonically, they were very playful and there was a lot of our youth evident in the sound that we were making..."

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In these days of instant TV-talent-show-gratification it's natural to question the legitimacy of bands 'discovered' as part of any kind of contest – triple j's annual Unearthed High competition cannot be immune to such scrutiny. Any questionability associated with the triple j Unearthed brand in general, largely due to the sheer volume of Unearthed acts over the years, however, need not be applied to the Unearthed High batch of artists. Looking back through the five years of the contest, the calibre of the winning acts is undeniable. Of the winners thus far – Tom Ugly, Hunting Grounds, Stonefield, Snakadaktal and Asta – most have gone on to achieve significant success. And though it's too early to say whether Snakadaktal (the 2011 title holders) will stay the course to the level of Stonefield's international achievements, their debut album, Sleep In The Water, suggests they have plenty to contribute.

The five pieces of Snakadaktal assembled in 2010 at Melbourne Rudolf Steiner School and, though the debut album has been a while coming, there have been small but significant milestones along the way. Their debut self-titled EP release via I Oh You in 2011 broke the top 30 on the ARIA digital charts and they scored consecutive Hottest 100 spots in 2011 and '12.

“We were all at the same school and were all the same kind of age so we were all just mates,” says singer and keyboardist Phoebe Cockburn of the group's origins. “We all loved music and the four boys [Sean Heathcliff, Joseph Clough, Jarrah McCarty-Smith and Barna Nemeth] were playing together and writing together and then one day they asked me to have a sing on one of their songs. That's when I started singing.

“From there we started writing our own songs,” she continues. “Sonically, they were very playful and there was a lot of our youth evident in the sound that we were making... We recorded our first EP, which took several months, and we recorded in many of our homes and our bedrooms and kitchens and all the places you shouldn't record. We released it and then it's all been happening one step at a time from there.”

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As the band's life has spanned a major transitional period for its members it would not be surprising if their sound had morphed dramatically through this time. Though Sleep In The Water exhibits more contrast than their EP and prior singles, there is an undeniable Snakadaktal-ness to the sound. Perhaps this is a testament to their inherent maturity; this high-school band had concreted such a developed idea of their aural identity at such an early stage that three years on they're still pushing on the same trajectory.

“We all enjoy each other's music and enjoy what each other[loves] most and from there I think all of our influences somehow combine and that's where we begin to create our own sound,” says Cockburn of their collective voice. “We never really pinpoint particular artists and then hope to create a sonic product that is similar to that, we always just try and keep it coming from us and that's how it just happens naturally.”

Nor, says Cockburn, were they necessarily trying to appeal to triple j sensibilities. “It came as a big surprise when the Unearthed thing happened and we became associated with triple j. It's been really great for us through the process and they've been really supportive and they're always really eager to premiere or preview our new songs and that's been a really great thing for us and helped us along the way... We never wanted to write or create a sound that was for a certain scene or a certain radio station; we just hoped that people would enjoy the music...”

The strength of Sleep In The Water is that its songs are given space to breathe. The poppier, more radio-friendly pieces (Fall Underneath, Hung On Tight, Isolate) are offset by more sparsely instrumented and challenging tunes (Ghost, The Sun I). Any weakness centres around the earnestness of the thing, it all sounds very grown-up; though it's hard to criticise a band for believing in what they do. “With this record I think sonically it's taken a change and that's due to our ageing and developing as people,” comments Cockburn. “We did intend to create a record that had its own life and we didn't want listeners to feel that they had [gotten] their head around it in the first listen. Hopefully that came across.”

The band steered away from stringing together existing material in creating their debut LP. Instead they spent four months living, writing and recording in producer Dann Hume's Stables Recording Studio in Gisborne (“We couldn't have chosen a better mate for that”), determined to produce a cohesive album rather than just a collection of songs. “It was great,” says Cockburn of the process. “It was a huge experience and it was how we wanted to do it from the start. We couldn't have imagined doing the studio hours, whatever they may be, that's just too foreign for us...

“The product that we wanted to make wasn't one that was a bundle of songs or a bundle of, I don't know, really concise pieces of music. We think that the record is musically very patient, as was the process of recording it. And I think that comes across. We did want it to be one body of work from the very beginning and we did want it to have a really lateral dynamic throughout the songs, sonically and lyrically. I guess that was just what we wanted to create from the very beginning.”

At the time of the interview, Snakadaktal are on the cusp of a huge national tour, which stops at Sydney's Metro Theatre, Melbourne's Forum, Perth's Capitol and Brisbane's Hi-Fi, amongst other venues. They're large rooms and Cockburn admits the live performance is still a little hard to grasp. “I'd definitely say we're a recording-based band,” she says. “The live performance is something that I think we struggle with emotionally a lot of the time... Hopefully with time it will become a bit more natural and a bit more easy and we'll be able to understand why people are there looking at us a little more... It's really overwhelming, and trying to focus on something while you're so confused about something else is a difficult thing to do. Hopefully that will just become a bit more easy with time.”