Straight Arrows Are Trying "Harder At This Band Shit"

26 October 2018 | 12:17 pm | Steve Bell

Straight Arrows’ affable frontman Owen Penglis tells Steve Bell how touring with the most unlikely of influencers made them drop their laissez-faire approach to band life and embrace discipline.

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In the global garage-rock community, Sydney psych-pop exponents Straight Arrows are widely considered one of Australia’s best and brightest exports, to the point that there often strangely seems more love and respect for their scuzzy, good time aesthetic on far-flung shores than here at home.

Yet if there’s any justice at all when it comes to these things (a highly-debatable assertion at the best of times), that will all change with the release of their brilliant third album On Top!, the most realised and accessible recorded manifestation so far of their reverb-drenched, fuzzed-out rock. “We’re all big pop music fans and I love my bubblegum records and stuff like that,” reflects frontman Owen Penglis of the album’s inherent catchiness. “But I think on this one you can hear that we’ve got vocalists, and you can even hear most of the words! I think that’s made a difference.”

Penglis, of course, can make such production jibes given that he’s helmed all of Straight Arrows’ albums to date, amidst a growing portfolio that’s found him lending his production/engineering talents to bands including The Grates, Royal Headache and Palms (to literally name but a few). But mainly he admits that it was better preparation on the songs that ended up paying such handsome dividends, as well a stint touring America and Australia with party-starting San Franciscans Thee Oh Sees. “These ones were pretty much finished [going into the sessions],” he continues of the On Top! tracks. “When we did the first one, It’s Happening, that was a funny one, we were all kids and didn’t know what the fuck we were doing because we hadn’t made an album before – or we hadn’t made a good one anyway – and everybody knew half of the songs but we were too busy partying and stuff to work too hard on band business. So maybe half of the songs on that first album were songs that I brought to everyone on the last two days of recording and taught them there.

"I dunno, maybe we should try a bit harder at this band shit?"

“And Rising was more a bunch of songs we had, and then a bunch I was writing in the studio and I’d just call people up and they’d come in on their lunch break and smash out a song that I’d teach them there. Whereas this one I made everyone practice every week for months! I guess it made a difference; it was just, like, ‘I dunno, maybe we should try a bit harder at this band shit?’

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“Touring with Thee Oh Sees, it’s a funny thing to see because they’re so rehearsed and so professional, and in the past, I always thought that bands who were like that sounded like shit, aesthetically at any rate. But then I was, like, ‘Oh wow, this is a band that’s really fucking cool but they’re also disciplined and it’s not some horrible radio corporate-music slick stuff.’ Still, everyone’s got shit to do so when you try to make everyone do a weekly rehearsal – which we’ve never done in our lives – it can be interesting, but you all kind of get into the swing of it eventually. Then it gets to this point and you’re, like, ‘Oh yeah, that actually paid off.’”

And while On Top! has a distinct, unified sound there’s also plenty of sonic diversity amongst the dozen tracks, a pleasing range Penglis attributes to both democracy and his wandering mind. “Usually just I’ll record a bunch of demos,” he smiles, “and often I’ll record every instrument on them just to approximate what I think it should sound like and then give them to the other people in the band and they usually make the call on what’s good and what’s not so good, and we dig through it that way.

“I wish I had the attention span to make a concept album where there was a theme and every song sounded similar, but I want to try different stuff when we’re writing too. As much as a lot of people think they all fucking sound the same because all guitar music sounds the same!”