[Photo by Angaline Atkins]
In a salient section of AZ's recent feature on Australia's R.I.P. Society, label head Nic Warnock mentioned that until recently, "no one [in Sydney] was willing to champion local bands and build them from the ground up [...] There was no real support team or independent establishment." Melbourne is a different story, and The Twerps are a case in point. Buttressed by a tight-knit DIY scene that saw one of its earliest success stories in Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Twerps started out on the city's house party circuit, sharing stages with other proto-punk/pop bands like Panel of Judges, Super Wild Horses, and Teen Archer.
Musical "mateship"-- whereby bands will unconditionally shout out one another to whoever will listen-- is an essential characteristic of the Melbourne scene, and the four-piece of Martin Frawley, Julia McFarlane, Rick Milovanovic and Patrick O'Neill has benefitted accordingly. Chapter Music, Night People, Underwater Peoples, and now Group Tightener have all fallen for Twerps' intuitive fusion of Flying Nun jangle, off-kilter wit, and Australian back porch-BBQ raconteurship. When we caught up with them on their recent-ish foray to New York-via-SXSW, however, the most striking thing about them was their genuine surprise at the attention they have been generating beyond Australian shores. Months ahead of their debut full-length on Chapter and UP, it seems that they are the only people unsure of how good they really are.
AZ: How did you guys start out?
Rick: Marty was living in a place where we were all hanging out a lot. Marty and I also worked at a video store together and straight away found that we loved the same music. That would’ve been late 2007. Around that time, we were really excited about bands like The Clean. I remember sitting around in his room listening to "Anything Could Happen" trying to figure out how to write a song like it as a joke. It came out as "Little Guys", from our first [Chapter Music] 7". I remember going to a friend’s house and playing it to them. We were so stoked.
Marty: And they were like, "you’re kidding right? Get over yourselves." That said, we had been drinking for seven hours. When we were doing the first bunch of recordings I was listening to heaps of The Go-Betweens. I didn’t know many chords, but I would watch “Bachelor Kisses” and just work out chords by watching Robert Forster. That’s why a lot of people say the record sounds like The Go-Betweens, but I don't think it does.
AZ: The Go-Betweens are somewhat of an Australian musical institution. Did you find yourselves looking mostly to Australian music for inspiration?
Marty: Well, we were going out five nights a week to see gigs. And in Melbourne, you don’t go out and see Nirvana, so we were seeing Melbourne locals Panel of Judges or Witch Hats play. They were the bands that we'd go home and try and play like.
Rick: Local bands were big influences. Our friends had just started this new band called Bitch Prefect, and we all saw them for the first time in Melbourne, and everyone just went, “Holy fuck! These mates of ours just raised the bar a whole new level." But the DIY scene in Melbourne is just that-- friends making it for themselves and learning from each other.
Marty: And Bitch Prefect come from Adelaide. There’s fucking nothing in Adelaide. All they do is sit around getting drunk and writing songs.
Julia: Before recording the album, I was listening to a lot of Laughing Clowns too, trying to pull their tricks.
Marty: Yeah, whatever shit Jules is listening to I’m listening to. She rules the stereo at home.
Pat: Which means we’re going to write an Arthur Russell record next, then a KISS one.
Marty: But the jig is up: we are Australian, and there is no point shying away from that. As as well as it is being into bands like The Feelies, you're going to reflect your surroundings.
AZ: How has the DIY scene down in Melbourne helped you guys? Is there a strong dialogue between bands?
Julia: We’re lucky in Melbourne, where it's really easy to get gigs at venues and pubs, whereas in Sydney the DIY scene happened out of complete necessity. There were no venues, no support. But in Melbourne, there are a shitload of venues to play at. There’s not as much ambition in Melbourne because it's really easy to get around, easy to get gigs at venues, and everyone will do shit for you. I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Marty: Definitely. I mean, how many live venues are there in Sydney now? In Melbourne, bars and pubs that have shows are still making money and there’s still enough passion that people are clinging on to. We usually play there or at house parties. I always prefer playing in front of my mates, really.
Rick: We still all work hard though, creating our own gigs and supporting each other. The level at which Twerps work is the level where we want it to be. In Melbourne, the level is unbelievable. Bands like Beaches and Eddy Current [Suppression Ring] work fucking hard. In comparison, we are pretty bad. I don’t think DIY has to mean photocopied covers and shit, you know? We don’t have a community and art space where you play and go clean up the next day. It's interesting how insular it is for us.
Pat: But when people visit Melbourne, you just want to grab them by the hand and spend days showing them around.
Marty: I think it has to do with the surroundings. More surfers come out of Sydney, more musicians come out of Melbourne. Once it starts happening, it's like a tornado; people are going to start placing emphasis on the music, which is going to motivate people to better themselves and make the scene more competitive. And that means that next year it will be another band that's getting hype, which is great!
Rick: And the bands that we play with all sound so different. Seeing Twerps play is not going to suddenly exhaust the "Melbourne" sound. It is character-building to finally find those people you can work with and find that their visions of music actually may be different from yours, but only go on to improve the music that you started with.
AZ: Given your place in this kind of ad hoc, insular scene, is it weird to find yourself garnering the attention of people overseas?
Julia: Yeah, it's really strange. At the Underwater Peoples’ showcase at SXSW, we played with Pure X...
Marty: ... And they were like, "Can we buy all your records?" And I said, "Um, we don’t have one.”
Julia: At SXSW, I just felt like I was in the physical Internet with all these bands that we have heard about, that have no other presence for us outside the internet. And then you find out that they are real people.
Pat: I guess Shawn Reed from Night People was probably one of the first from the States to find us. He seems a pretty influential dude in terms of underground music, and he passed it on to people. I guess that’s how we found our way onto the Internet. Then he did the tape. A lot of people ask if we have any records, but all we’ve got is a 7”, which makes our merch table interesting.
Marty: On a whim, we put our shit up onto the Internet, forgot about it, and then one day Pat calls me from work telling me this guy from America wants to put out our record. Then we started getting emails from dudes saying, “Night People are putting out your record!” I don’t know, I'm pretty out of the loop with this shit.
AZ: Does the unexpected success put pressure on you to stick to a particular sound?
Julia: It's hard to say. There's always a gap between what the band thinks and what people hear. When we rehearse, we’re always astounded at how flash we think we sound, but then we'll have a review saying we are the most under-rehearsed shit.
Marty: And we think we sound amazing. This lady one day came up while we were playing and just tells us, “You’re shit”. And we were like, “Oh.”
Rick: But with the experience of trying to write an album, I really feel like things came together. And it’s definitely a different sound from the 7"s.
AZ: In what sense is it different?
Pat: A little bit more mature.
Marty: More confident. We had two songs that we had to go in with, but when we had the chance to use a 24-track and their Hammonds, overdubs, and vocals, we had the opportunity to diversify a little.
Marty: Mikey Young from Eddy Current did the first set of recordings. That was awesome for us because I think when he saw us first play, he saw something in us that we didn’t; he recognised what we were trying to do and then would go about making it sound like that on record.
Pat: Which at the time, was just by pressing "play" on a 4-track record. I think the first time we tried to record an album, we tried to do it with drinking beers, getting drunk, just hanging out. We went out for a week with Mikey to a farm and we thought that would produce results, but we did jack.
Rick: The songs sounded like they’d be great for 7"s, but they didn’t really feel like [material for] an album. We were in the studio five hours for five days, and we showed the album to Chapter Music, and they were like, “We’re more than happy to put it out”, but you could tell they were thinking that we could do better than this.
Julia: After that, we realised that we had the facilities and the know-how to make something sound nice. This second take does sound nice. I’m sure it will still sound lo-fi by rock standards.
Rick: I loved that we were able to have so many people from the scene in Melbourne on it. [Chapter Music's] Guy [Blackman] plays on a bit of it, Brenden from Eddy Current, Secret Wild Horses. It just felt like us Twerps in a fucking playground of equipment. Playing rinky-dink little shitty melodies on expensive grand pianos. It definitely wasn’t us recording a Genesis record.
Marty: And we could incorporate our own styles in more. Ric has a keener eye for garage stuff, while I'm more pop-inclined.
Rick: No! You're more garage and I’m more pop! I don’t want to play our garage, I hate our garage!