Posted January 30, 2005

Psychedelic enigmas:
The Sand Pebbles'
Chris Hollow asks:
'Is Beyonce godhead?'

Melbourne's Sand Pebbles came together after bassist Chris Hollow, drummer Piet Collins and guitarist Ben Michael X met while scripting writing for the Australian television soap opera, Neighbours, and discovered a mutual admiration for obscure musice and pop culture. Their second album, "Eastern Terrace", received rabid reviews from credible music publications across the world.

The follow-up album, the equally widely-acclaimed, "Ghost Transmissions", is an eclectic blend psyche rock, surfside harmonies and subtle pop.

PATRICK EMERY spoke with bassist Chris Hollow about the band, the subtext of suburban soapies and the musical benefits of international sporting stardom.

Q For the uninitiated, can you give us a potted summary of the genesis and evolution of the Sand Pebbles?

We got together as friends to play music – bonded more by a sense of humour than any clear musical vision.

Q What are the major musical (and other cultural) influences for the band?

In a nutshell? Music, films, books, magazines, TV, football, footwear, the Wild West, politics, family, friends, BMX riding, camping …not necessarily in that order. Musically? The Velvet Underground.

Q The first time I saw reference to your role as a scriptwriter for Neighbours, I thought you were taking the piss. Although I have only seen one episode of Neighbours (the mullet ridden Jason and Kylie wedding episode), I believe it's still largely formulaic (no offence to your writing skills!). Does your songwriting and performing provide you with an outlet for more creative artistic activities?

I suppose but it’s not so black and white. As in Neighbours doesn’t necessarily = formulaic and music = wildly abandoned art. Neighbours is a pretty creative show in its own way. Sure there are restrictions but there’s also plenty of scope to explore shit. Plus, for me, I’m not writing Neighbours every day of my life. So when I am doing it I enjoy it. Having said that when I die I’d rather be known as a good songwriter rather than a purveyor of quality television.

Q Is there any chance an Alexander Spence, or even Julian Cope, character will appear soon in Ramsay Street?

If you watched you might be surprised by some of the characters peccadillos. I’m sure they’d give both Skip Spence and Droolian a run for their money. Some pretty weird shit has gone down on Neighbours.

Q Your previous album, Eastern Terrace, received rave reviews from a wide spectrum of sources, including from prominent and credible US and European publications. Did you feel any pressure to produce a follow-up album of comparable or better quality (the so-called difficult second album syndrome)?

Not really. To be honest when we released "Eastern Terrace" we’d already written a lot of the songs that ended up on "Ghost Transmissions". So the feeling was more - ‘geez, if you liked that wait till you get a load of this…’
What do you see as the major differences (in terms of underyling musical influences and recording/songwriting process) between Eastern Terrace and Ghost Transmissions?

"Eastern Terrace" was written and recorded when we weren’t playing live so much. So the album, as a whole, is quieter, maybe a little more introspective. Essentially the songs were recording experiments. The songs on Ghost Transmissions were written to play live. So they’re more direct, maybe easier to latch onto – easier to put across to people out for a good night.

Q When I saw you guys at the Esplanade Hotel, I'm sure I heard some Doors moments during your extended take on ‘Ripple’; and some almost Who's Next ("Baba O'Reilly", "Won't Get Fooled Again") type moments in Murray's keyboard runs. Is that fair, or was it just a trick of the light (or indicative of my inebriated state)?

There’s a new song we’ve been playing called "1000 Flowers" and Murray Ono (keyboardist) has been doing that Who shit. Hey, if I could play everything I would (laughing). I’m sure the recorded version won’t sound like that. Murray also does a great, extended wig out in "Ripple" which I love. I can’t say I hear any Doors in there.

Q "Ghost Transmissions" contains some very subtle, almost haunting psych stained moments, yet simultaneously - and almost paradoxically - the music illustrates a very strong pop sensibility.

Our singer Andrew Tanner reckons we’re a psychedelic band trying to play pop as opposed to a pop band trying to be psychedelic.

Q What's your ultimate pop song?

The one that pops into my head straight away is the Rolling Stones’ "We Love You". I love that song so much. I mean there’s a million songs that I love from the past. But I’m also really excited by things like Beyonce ("Lose My Breath", "Crazy in Love") and Britney ("Toxic") and Kylie ("I Believe in You") and Outkast ("Hey Ya"). I really love those songs. They’re commercial pop but there’s some great experimentation in their production. You know people like Missy Elliott etc. I hate this indie vs. commercial shit where people say Radio Birdman is Godhead and Beyonce is super commercial and that means it’s super bland. Some of the stuff on the charts these days is outrageous.

Q Your songs are generally credited to the group as a whole, rather than specific members of the band. Does this indicate that Sand Pebbles songs evolve following group jam sessions?

That used to be the case. Back even before Eastern Terrace. But we haven’t jammed up a song from nothing for a long time.

Q So what sort of process do you adopt in developing songs?

Usually one of us will come up with the premise of the song. Then we play it and everyone else feels their way – adding and subtracting. Usually the way a song sounds at the start is nothing like it does at the end. In terms of songwriting credit – we’ve been pretty democratic. Ben or I might come up with a song but Tanner might, and usually does, add something that makes it a way better song. So he deserves credit for that. Same with Ono and Piet Collins. Plus everyone’s pitching songs these days.

Q Some of your publicity material constructs an enigmatic image of the band, adding to the allure of the band. Is that right? Is this an accurate reflection of the band's opportunities to play live, or is it part of a wider (clever) PR strategy?

A bit from column A … a bit from column B. Since the release of "Ghost Transmissions" a lot more doors have opened for us in terms of playing live. But beforehand to see us was a rarity. That was our fault as much as anyone’s. But I would say we’re still pretty much a mystery to most people. Music fans in Melbourne are a little more aware but that’s not true of the rest of Australia. There’s still a lot for people to discover if they’re interested.

Q I have a vague memory that you supported Arthur Lee and Love at his Melbourne show in 2002. Is that correct?

Yeah, we played two sets. We opened the night, then a band called the Devil Dolls played, then us again before Arthur. It was an awesome night. He was in incredible form. One of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. The fact that we got to support him was an honour. Someone told me Neil Rogers from RRR said he saw the best and worst of music in one night with regards to Arthur and the Devil Dolls (laughing). He didn’t say anything about us.

Q What were your impression of the (in)famous Arthur Lee?

Our guitarist Ben Michael X hung out in the spa with Arthur afterwards and he said he was in control of all his faculties.

Q Your live show is more than just performing your studio recordings in front of a live audience. What's the objective of your live performances, and how do you see the nexus between your studio output and your live perfomances?

Well, I’m not so worried about getting our live sound on record. Certainly I want the excitement. But, for the most part, our albums don’t necessarily sound like we do live. And I like that. It means live there’s a whole other way of hearing our songs. I suppose the objective live is to see how far the songs will bend. It means we sometimes play them much better, or at least much different, than they’re represented on the records. But that’s the same for most bands that we like. If you wanted to hear them like on the record you’d just stay home.

Q The Sand Pebbles' lyrics manage to capture moments of love, emotion and human endeavour, without ever coming across as insipid or facile. Do your lyrics aim to describe actual situation or moments or are they more general observations that are open for subjective interpretation? Am I trying to be a complete music academic wanker in asking this question?

Um, I think it’s probably a bit of both. As in actual situations inspired the songs but they’re universal enough for people to put their own interpretations on them. I’m just glad you like them. Everyone’s very harsh on lyrics in our band. A lot of editors.

Q Amongst your more eclectic activities, you've represented St Kilda in the AFL. Who did you play under (coach), and alongside?

I played under Ken Sheldon and Stan Alves in the mid-'90s. And played alongside Robert Harvey, Tony Lockett, Nicky Winmar, Stewart Loewe, Nathan Burke, Gilbert McAdam, Tim Pekin, David Grant and a host of other great players.

Q Are there any music legends hidden in the ranks of the AFL?

No. I’m the only one (laughing).

Q If you were an international cricketer representing Australia in a one-day game, what song would you choose as the theme song for your walk to the wicket?

You know I’ve actually caught myself thinking about this before – the Stooges’ "Down on the Street" - the world’s greatest strut.

Q What's next on the horizon for the Sand Pebbles. Are there any plans to embark on a national (or even international) tour?

Someone’s talked to us about going to America. Of course we’re keen but we’ll see what happens. There’s also been talk of shows in Sydney and Byron too. I would love to do Byron because I’ve never been there. While that’s all being sorted out we’re squirreling away in the studio doing some recordings for the next album. Or EP. Or whatever it might be.

Maybe a concept album?

I really liked Black Cab’s album (Altamont Diary). But I don’t think we’re focused enough to do a concept album. It would have to be a pretty strong concept to have us all writing in the one direction.

Q Final, and most important, question - as we're in a bar, what are you drinking?

Let’s start with a cocktail and go from there.