Posted October 4, 2006

and neither do
THE Sand Pebbles

Melbourne band the Sand Pebbles describe their music as ‘flower punk’.  You won’t find that genre – not yet, at least – in the standard taxonomy of your average record store, on-line music department or even the Rough Guide to Music.  After all punk – in all its tablid glory – was constructed and marketed as a reaction to the specious floral adorned idealism of the hippie movement.  And wasn’t it punk’s pin-up self-destructive icon, Sid Vicious, who claimed gratuitously that he’d kill a hippie if he saw one? 

But the Sand Pebbles are no ordinary band. Having generated lavish reviews inside and outside Australia with its debut album, "Eastern Terrace", with its follow-up "Ghost Transmissions", the Sand Pebbles chose to treat the risk of the Difficult Third Album Syndrome with the same level of contempt Sydney Swans Australian Rules star Barry Hall typically affords feisty young defenders purporting to impede his direct path to goal. 

The skeptic would suggest that the self-defining absolute quality of "Ghost Transmissions" could lead to disappointment come the Sand Pebbles’ next long playing effort.  The skeptic, of course, is a complete moron.  "Atlantic Regrets Nothing" is everything the Sand Pebbles have delivered in the past, with a shirtload more.  This is a seamless synthesis of floral attitude, obtuse punk and psychedelic protestations.  If this was a bunch of nuclear physicists they’d have perfected fusion at room temperature with the aid of nothing but a high school chemistry set, a set of guitar pedals and a copy of "Forever Changes".

PARICK EMERY spoke to Sand Pebbles guitarist BEN MICHAEL (right) about the band’s new album, disappearing keyboard players and the hidden pop culture gems lurking in Neighbours scripts.

PE: Some of the songs on the album have been in your live set for a while.   Do you only feel comfortable recording material when you’ve refined in a live setting?

BM: While some of the songs have been in the live set for a while, they were actually recorded at the same time they first appeared.  So they have the feel of the band getting exciting about a new song for the first time.  In the case of 1000 Flowers it was literally the first time we played it that made it onto the album.  You can hear a mistake and argument about the arrangement in the finished song.  Which I like.  For this next album we'll actually have the chance to record songs that we've been playing for a while which is something I'm looking forward to.

To quote Dickens, the last 12 months seem to have been the best of times and the worst of times – weddings, babies and mental break-downs.  Do you think the Sand Pebbles are the stronger for the experience?

It has been an insane and crazy time for the band.  So much was going on. Births, deaths, marriages, breakdowns, the lot. All our emotions were heightened to an intense level.  But that's a good thing.  It meant that the record was done under extreme conditions and pushed us to make music that reflected the highs and lows of that period.  We've come out the other end, so I guess it's made us stronger.

How stressful was the recording of Atlantis Regrets Nothing?  In hindsight what would you have differently to minimise the stress?

The recordings were both a joy and a great stress.  Freak outs, fights but also nights of insane laughter and fun – often all three in one night.  One night Chris and I argued about some insane recording ideas I had...I wanted to record heaps of sounds with a microphone sitting in a coffee cup.  I was losing the plot and Chris took a swing at me....I ducked and he put his hand through the wall.  We stared at each other for a second, then burst out laughing.  I wouldn't change anything, it gave us Atlantis Regrets Nothing.  But we'll make the next record in a very different way.    We had protocols for this album.  And we went for it.  We tried to layer the album to an insane level.  Strings.  Backwards guitars. Detuned basses. Weird atmospheres.  Forty tracks of horns...with heaps of hand operated guitar effects on every second ended up giving us fantastic sounds...but it also sent us crazy.  The next one will try and capture the live band.  One or two days  recording.  It'll be nice to have another type of pressure placed on us.

You’ve said the album is a protest album of sorts.  What is the band protesting against?

I think we're currently living under the most evil regime this country has ever experienced. Certainly in my lifetime.  We all felt a lot of anger and frustration.  But I've also felt that angry anti-Howard rants play into his hands. He feeds off smart people hatting him. And angry protest songs often sound so ball-less and impotent. So we wanted to rise above the little fucker.  We tried our hardest to make a beautiful, uplifting record.  Kill him with beauty.  That's our protest.  The man will never do anything beautiful.  Even though his heart is the size of a pea, it's still filled with hate.  Howard’s End is the sound of the band dancing on the night he finally loses.

Do you think protest music (as a loosely defined genre) has any net effect on community and/or political attitudes?

Not really.  But beautiful music makes living though tough times easier.  It's been my saving grace right through my life.

At a show at the Espy last year Chris was soliciting suggestions for possible titles for the album.  What others were in the mix?   Any personal favourites you thought would’ve worked well?

Chris suggested Atlantis. I suggested Atlantis Regrets.  Chris fired back with Atlantis Regrets Nothing!  And that was it.  It's kind of like the band being happy to be underground.  Which fits.  It's a happy fuck you.

When was the last time you heard from Murray?  Do you think he will ever return to the band?

We get mysterious emails from Murray on an occasional basis.  He's making music in the wilds of Norway.  He needed to have a radical change of scenery.  I'm not sure Murray will ever return to Australia let alone the Sand Pebbles.  All I do know, is he's an incredible engineer and amazing musician as long as he keeps doing those two things we'll all be happy.

How did you decide to recruit Tor Larsen into the band?

Tor used to come along to our gigs.  He was a super cool kid who was as obsessed with music as Chris and I.  His knowledge of underground rock since the '60s is bloody incredible for one so young.  After one show he mentioned he was in a band and would we like to have a listen to a demo.  I was a tad worried it would be shit and it'd fuck with our friendship.  But it was completely breathtakingly amazing.  The sun blindness are a very special band.  So, anyway, we tried playing as a four piece and it just wasn't good enough. We needed an extra player to make more noises. I've always wanted to be in a band with three guitar players.  So we asked him.  Luckily he said yes.

How do you think Tor changes the sonic aesthetic of the band?

While I miss Murray's keyboard textures, having two lead guitars in one band has been fantastic for us.  To see Tor and Andy playing off each other is a joy.  I think this is the best we've ever sounded.  Tor's also got a beautiful voice and writes great songs.  And the fact he's a kid just gives it a cool look.  I love seeing Tor and Andy singing together.  The voice of experience with the voice of youth.

There was a moment during your set at the Northcote Social Club the other week when it looked like the band could have taken the sound anywhere it liked, and the audience with it.  Is that a reasonable observation of how it felt on stage?

Yes.  the best sand Pebble gigs are ones that have the sense anything can happen.  A lot of our songs are open ended.  They can go anywhere from a three minute pop song to a 20-minute drone freak out.  I think watching a band faithfully recreate their records is dull.  There has to be a sense that you are watching something special...that could go anywhere.  You risk some dodgy low points, but the highs are way higher.

You’ve said that you’d like to do the next album ‘live’.   Would this be to create a different sound and/or style for the record, or just to avoid the stress of trying to micro-engineer every last sound?

I think we've done the multi-layered thing.  I'd love to be able to capture the way we work off each other live on record...and to do it quickly.    

You supported Love during its Australian tour in 2002.  What are your personal memories of Arthur Lee?

I remember jumping for joy when we found out about the support.  My daughter had just been born, which meant I was in a strange place at the time.  We arrived and had a good time playing.  The crowd seemed into it and we were feeling good.  Then I suddenly got worried.  What if Arthur is shit.  what if he's lost it. He hadn't.  It was one of the greatest shows I've ever seen.  Such wonderful songs and his voice was so rich and strong.  A perfect night.

What’s your favourite pop cultural reference you’ve managed to include in a Neighbours script? 

We've given Mogwai a lot of props on the show.  And some of my favourite underground comic book writers and artists.  Brian Wood in particular.  An amazing writer responsible for Local, the best comic around at the moment.

If you could choose a moment in rock or pop history to weave into a soap script, what would it be?

Australia in the early to mid '80s.  I was too young for it...but bought all the records later.  What a time.  Died Pretty, Birthday Party, Moodists, Scientists.  Just great, great music. In my view better than anything else that was going on in the world at the time.

You’ve received some very positive reviews in the US.  Have you contemplated touring there?

I'd love to tour the USA.  Dean Wareham has been pumping us up over their, so who knows, I'd be up for it for sure.  Let them know what's really going on over here.

The Sand Pebbles are in the unique position of playing music for enjoyment rather than trying to forge out a career out of music.  Do you think that contributes to the quality of the band’s music?

Yes, it's all about love.  Music isn't our's what makes life bearable when you have a job. No decision is made to make anyone but ourselves happy.  It's pure.  And that's very important for us.

As a band comprised mainly of older guys do you feel like elder statesmen of the psych-rock scene or boring old farts?

We've got Tor it's lowed the average age of the band by a lot!  I don't really think about age.  All I know is we've got better as we grown up.  When  I was a recording buying nerd kid I didn't give a toss about the age of the musicians I was into.  I think our audience are the same.  The mix of ages at gigs is really cool.  

What is psychedelia – a sonic and visual aesthetic, the effect of too many drugs, a style of music or a slick marketing campaign created by coke-ravaged baby boomer advertising executives?

It's a misused term sometimes.  Big label bands use it to try and make them sound edgier.  But the heads know the score.  I think it's music with a strong beat and lots of little things going on in the there's a depth and a lot of sounds to freak out to and get lost in...but a beat that always keeps you tuned in.  I think the right amount of drugs can help the experience.  You can see that on the faces of the audience sometimes...a blissed out, semi freaked out they could be anywhere...I love that look.

If the Sand Pebbles was an (Australian Rules) football team, what would it be, and why?

Probably a team from up Darwin way.  Not a lot of discipline, but a lot of crazy moves and in the moment decisions.  Taking big species and trying to kick the craziest goals.  Like when you play with you mates when you’re a all want to take a big mark or slot one through on your wrong foot from the boundary line.