Ahead of the national tour celebrating dance-tactic new single ‘Trippin’ Up’, The Jungle Giants frontman Sam Hales talks to Steve Bell about learning to trust his gut in a shifting sonic landscape.
Back in 2021 - right on a decade after releasing their eponymous debut EP - Brisbane four-piece The Jungle Giants firmly cemented their status as stars of the Australian scene when their fourth album Love Signs went to #1 on the ARIA Album chart.
They’d long ago carved out a strong niche for themselves on the Australian scene - their upbeat, feel-good brand of indie-pop augmented by a charismatic, high-energy live show - but having a chart-topping album under their belts stamped their credentials as serious songsmiths and performers.
Further than that, the achievement was also fitting recognition for not only The Jungle Giants’ work ethic and dedication to the cause but also the band’s willingness to embrace change and subtly evolve their sound.
Having drifted slowly but surely away from their trenchant indie-rock beginnings towards the electronic realms, Love Signs highlighted this new dance-friendly aspect of the band’s aesthetic and was warmly embraced by fans and critics alike.
And for The Jungle Giants’ frontman Sam Hales - who also pens the songs as well as being responsible for production in the studio - this success was a green light to dive even deeper into what’s inspiring him musically when constructing songs for the band, and has also given him the confidence to relax and trust his artistic intuition.
"I think there’s something in the fact that you become less fearful through experience - I feel a lot less scared than I used to be,” he reflects. “I used to have some really bad days, like the day before releasing a song would be really bad for me - I’d be freaking out and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself - but I think over time I’m starting to just get a little better at not being scared and just trusting the process, trusting my gut.
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“That’s where I’m at now - I’m just having a lot more fun, and enjoying the process rather than freaking the fuck out. Which is good because then you spend more time enjoying it, like sometimes you’re making a wacky song, and instead of thinking, ‘Nah, this can’t be on the album’, you’re like, ‘Just chill out and see what happens’.”
This new sense of playful experimentation is firmly evident on The Jungle Giants’ most recent single Trippin’ Up, their first morsel from album number five a hazily buoyant burst of electro-pop taking inspiration from some unlikely sources on far-flung shores.
“I’ve been sitting on that one for a while, and I’m really happy with it,” Hales smiles. “There’s a couple of things about Trippin’ Up that I really love: firstly, when you go to the UK and turn on the radio, it’s all D&B. And one thing I loved is that I wanted to get elements of D&B and kind of prettify it - put on some pretty R&B-esque vocals - but also in a way I wanted to make a pop song out of those D&B elements.
“So for me, it was like a little statement piece about what the new album’s going to be - there’s going to be a lot of trickery and a lot of times where listeners will go, ‘I don’t listen to that genre of music!’, but it’s like sneaking little genres into people’s ears. For me that’s really fun because on paper that song seems super-weird - it’s a D&B beat with timpani on the bass - but I love when people hear it and go, ‘Oh cool, that’s nice’. You’ve done the trickery.”
Hales admits that the subtle evolution of The Jungle Giants’ sound over the years has been partly intentional but also just a reflection of his own personal tastes developing with age.
“I think naturally over time as a music fan yourself you just listen to new music,” he reflects. “I remember the first time I tried to change the band’s sound was a really weird experience, and that was one of those scary times when I was caught thinking, ‘What happens now? People expect ‘this', what happens if I go ‘that' way?’
“But I’m really happy - and proud - that I made that choice years ago because I think our fans also change what they’re listening to year-by-year, as do we as the people who make music, so I think it makes a lot of sense to progress with what’s happening in the wider music world.
“If you keep making the same thing it’s, like, ‘Why? Are you just listening to that thing?’ And if you just listen to one thing that’s fine too, but I think it’s important for an artist to say what they’re listening to and bring those elements from what they love from new music to their fans.
“And I also think that it’s really important to challenge myself and to try new things - whether it’s different production or different songwriting techniques - I think that’s really good, you’ve got to keep yourself not guessing but learning.”
There was an apt description of The Jungle Giants in the Trippin’ Up press release as a “genre-agnostic band”, one that Hales is more than happy to own.
“I love that,” he laughs. “Growing up Beck was one of my favourite artists, and you just started to learn that you couldn’t guess or expect what the next album was going to be like. And I loved that - it’s like opening a Christmas present, ‘What’s he done now?’ - so I think that says a lot about the fun of making music.
“As an artist, as long as the songwriting is good and the songcraft is good you can go down all of these different crazy avenues, and I like doing that. And I’m hoping that people are starting to expect that from The Jungle Giants’ music - like maybe, ’What the hell are they doing now?’”
To celebrate the release of Trippin’ Up, The Jungle Giants are embarking on a comprehensive national tour - taking in all states as well as hitting the ACT and even crossing the ditch for a handful of New Zealand shows - and Hales concedes that their powerful live show is an important part of the band’s overall armoury.
“I’m like an energy guy,” he tells. “I love going to a gig and having a good time screaming and dancing, and when I’m making a song if there’s a build-up I just transport myself to being in the crowd watching that song being performed - not necessarily by me, just watching the song be performed - and I almost react to that, like, ‘The guy in the crowd needs this now’ so you build it up and drop it.
“I like putting myself in that perspective because I love being in the crowd watching bands, it’s one of my favourite things to do. And I love being onstage performing because I can absolutely relate to how fun it is in the crowd, so I have fun too. I really enjoy it, and the band does too. Andrew [Dooris] our bass player is known for being an absolute maniac onstage, that’s just his default setting.
“It’s kinda funny, the last time we did a tour like this was the Love Signs tour at the start of 2022, which feels so long ago! And that was coming out of the pandemic and that was still a big thing - we were one of the first big tours to go out post all that shit. I remember we were playing the Riverstage and people weren’t sure whether it was safe yet to go in crowds or not, there was a pall of uncertainty over everything which I’m so glad is gone.”
Even despite the inherent once-in-a-lifetime challenges The Jungle Giants smashed the Love Signs tour, and even learned something about the new tunes in the process.
“That was still an incredible tour, one of the most amazing tours ever - I cried after each show!” Hales laughs. “People would be, like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I’d be like [puts on teary voice] ‘It was amazing!’
“But we’ll see, maybe on this tour I’ll do a bit of crying - I’m a bit of a cryer when I’m happy. But the other thing is that when you’ve got a new body of work you want to see people’s faces and see what they react to.
“I remember during the Love Signs tour I was, like, ‘Wow!’ because there were certain songs from the album that I was really surprised how much people were connecting with. That was really cool because the crowd talks - you see which songs they move to, which ones they sway to, which ones they just chat to - you can tell what’s going on, it’s like a little bit of field research.
“So that was incredible, just going on those big stages and watching people tell you what they think of the record, it was so good.”
And it’s not like The Jungle Giants are waking up groggily for hibernation for their impending Australian run. With over half a billion streams to their name - many millions from overseas followers - The Jungle Giants are these days a truly global phenomenon, and 2023 has already found them playing at Florida’s Okeechobee Festival and M3F in Arizona, as well as a run of headlining shows in Mexico.
“It’s been incredible,” Hales marvels. “It feels like the next stage for us. A big part of what we want to do is think more globally than we have in the past. Also with my music, I’m trying to think globally - I’m not trying to make music for the local pub, I’m trying to make it for some club in Mexico or Phoenix.
“And I do think a big part of that is the perspective you get from travelling - you get to know people and what they’re listening to - so I think that all this travel has had a really good influence on me and my songwriting. I‘m listening to so many different things and talking to other artists.
“That Mexico trip in particular was life-changing. I had this song that I’d been working on and I met this amazing girl in Mexico and we hit it off - we had lunch and we hit it off, it’s like we’re the exact same person. She’s an artist just like me, and the band left to go back home but I stayed two weeks and just worked with her and we made a song - and that’s our next single coming out, a collaborative work.
“We’ve started getting booked in Mexico a lot, and we played an incredible set at a festival called Corona Capital last year which was definitely one of the weirdest experiences of our career so far. At that festival people like Miley Cyrus and Lil Yachty were playing - just to name a couple of the big acts - as well as a couple of other Australian bands, and when we went on to play our promoter had told us to expect about 4,000 people, but there was about 25,000 people just standing in front of our stage!
“We were, like, ‘What the hell? Have they got the set times wrong?’ And we started playing and they stayed, and I still thought it was someone else’s crowd so I started telling the crowd to do certain things and they all did it, it was just like Splendour!
“It really feels like something’s connecting there, and that’s really special because music’s a big part of the culture there, music’s in their blood. I’ve always respected the Mexican people and culture and I’m starting to feel really at home there.”
And while they may be focusing on the world stage that’s not at the expense of their beloved homeland, with Hales still processing The Jungle Giants’ organic ten-year path from being a young Brisbane band with a dream to national chart-toppers.
“It does feel like we’ve enjoyed a nice, consistent rise,” he ponders. “Just being myself, I think one of the key things is just to be earnest about the whole thing and be willing to fuck it up but also enjoy it and learn and try really hard. I think that’s part of the whole thing - being willing to put your whole life into it - and I think people can tell when you are being earnest because you’re taking informed risks and your music is exciting.
“It feels really good because I feel that I’m just being myself and just doing what feels right. And even if something occasionally feels like, ‘Woah, that’s crazy!’, then I’m, like, ’Good, let’s do something crazy!
“And for our fans, I’ll just say that there’s new music coming way sooner than you think! That’s a little secret, but there’s something coming really soon, and I can’t wait! You’ll never guess what it sounds like!”
The Jungle Giants' expansive Trippin' Up national tour kicks off tomorrow in Hobart. You can buy tickets here.