Sweet Sorrow

9 May 2012 | 8:00 am | Chris Yates

“he was like the most good vibing, 52-year-old, sick surfing, snowboarding, five-gigs-a-week guy I have ever known. He was always dancing around the studio going, ‘More energy!’”

It's a frosty day in Sydney and Okell is camped out at a friend's house in Marrickville, enjoying the local cuisine but cursing the cold and yearning for his hometown on the beach in Lennox Head.

“Bloody oath,” he says. “I can't wait to get back there actually. I've been on the road for about a month and I've got the 'miss your girlfriend' blues.”

It's something he's more than familiar with. Okell spends as much time on the road as possible, and he particularly loves getting out into more remote communities that don't get the chance to see a lot of live music. He says he's learnt to love the long drives, and a new diesel van is making it a little more comfortable these days.

“I've got it set up pretty well,” he speaks proudly of the vehicle. “It's got eskies and gas cookers and shit like that. I just drive while the other guys get their MacBooks out and do business.”

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The other guys he speaks of are his new live band, who are moonlighting from their gig as the rhythm section in fellow roots rockers Chase The Sun. Ryan Van Gennip and Jon Howell, both veterans of Aussie rock, are lending their formidable talents to help Okell keep the dream alive. Also helping out for the recording of the EP were Jules Parker and Lisa Gentz from The Gold Coast's Hussy Hicks. He speaks highly of these collaborators, referring to them as his best mates. He raves about Parker's guitar prowess, which he was incredibly impressed with.

“She is probably the most cooking guitarist – both electric and acoustic – that I have ever played with,” he gushes. “She's very tasteful, but with this quirky, shredding guitar style. We just told her to go for it and do whatever she wanted to do so she just went to town.”

Despite the sweet sounds and laidback casual beach vibes of his new EP Sugar, Okell had to survive some incredibly tragic circumstances in order to see the project through to fruition. He speaks so highly of everyone involved in the recording of the EP, but his voice wavers when speaking of a man he obviously held in extremely high regard.

“The guy that produced it,” he starts carefully, “he was like the most good vibing, 52-year-old, sick surfing, snowboarding, five-gigs-a-week guy I have ever known. He was always dancing around the studio going, 'More energy!'”

He's talking about the late Brian 'Birdy' Burdett. “Birdy and his two daughters died in a car crash one day before we got the masters back, man. He's like my second dad and closest friend. The EP just means so much more to us now than it ever could have. It's given us more spirit to really make the most of everything, and we all just try to celebrate him all the time.”

It's obvious he hasn't spoken much about his good friend's passing yet, and there's a real sadness that colours his voice when he talks about how he found and lost a very like-minded collaborator.

“Working with him was wicked,” he offers. “I just laid everything on the table and said, 'Let's just try anything and everything with it'. I didn't want to be protective about the songs – it was just the complete opposite of that for everyone involved. As well as the EP, we recorded an album with him as well - it just has to be mixed now, but we really wanted to get this out now.”