Prove your humanity

In anticipation of his debut performance in WA, Grok had a chat with Nick Sowersby—the man behind Sunbeam Sound Machine—about his inspirations, touring and how life changes informed his music.

Your new album Goodness Gracious was released in May. The vinyls sold out on Bandcamp and it debuted at No. 10 on the North American College Community Charts. How do you feel about that?

It felt really good. I worked on it for a long time so by the time it came out, I was like, ‘I have no idea what anyone’s going to think of this’. To have it received like that, that was really nice.

What was the process of writing, recording and producing the album like?

I did all that myself in a home studio I had set up where I was living at the time, so it was a slow process. I don’t want to say lonely, but it was solitary. Not in a bad way necessarily, but there was a lot of time by yourself just working on something. It’s really rewarding as well, once you come out the other end with something you’re proud of and it definitely feels worth it.

So, you’ve mentioned in print that the album is ‘exploratory’ and ‘document[s]’ a period of change’ could you elaborate on that period?

On a personal level, a few things happened that changed [my] life—big life changes—but also, I looked at Sunbeam, taking time away from Sunbeam as a live public thing just to work on it as a creative pursuit for a while.

I don’t suppose you’d want to talk about what happened in your life and those changes?

Well, a breakup happened in the midst of me recording it and also just mental health stuff that I hadn’t dealt with before. Anxiety and that sort of thing. I don’t want to say they inspired the album because it’s a pretty uninspiring headspace to be in, but I think they had their influence on their album and lyrics sort of reflect that.

I feel that music is a really good place to feel safe when experiencing mental health issues.

Yeah, I think so. When things feel a little out of control as well with working on music. It can just be a little safe space where you do feel in control of things.

Are there any specific songs from the album that you feel embody that?

Yeah, there’s one called Hold Me Back, which is about things getting pretty crazy and looking at it in the rearview mirror like, ‘I’ve sort of got through it and I’m feeling a lot stronger about things now.’ Also, the last song on the album Other Kindness is about that as well—looking at it from a distance.

It’s nice when you can separate yourself from a period where things were a lot shitter.

[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. And I think working on an album or music that deals with certain subject matter is a good way of moving through things. If only because you get sick of singing about it, so it becomes something you want to get rid of in your mind because it’s been occupying so much mental space. Even if it doesn’t fix it, you’re sort of like, ‘I’m ready to start occupying my mind with some other thoughts now,’ so it’s really helpful in that way as well.

How does working by yourself influence the music-making process, as opposed to working with others?

It frees me up to follow an idea as far and for as long as I want to. It means songs can marinate for longer. Often I think it’s a really good thing, there’s other times where you think maybe it would be better to be more instantaneous with things, but I think it allows me to have more of my personal stance on a song and not compromise on my vision for things, but I’m not ruling out collaborating with other people in future stuff because I really see the value in doing that.

What do you like about touring?

I like the surprise of people actually turning up to the shows. If we play in Melbourne, we’ve at least got friends and family who can come but if we play in a different city or even in a different country, I don’t know if there’s going to be anyone there. Being able to share that with people’s great. It’s a five-piece live band. The other four people in there are four of my best friends. It’s like going for a trip with your friends. Sometimes you play a show and it could be really disheartening, like the show doesn’t go well or whatever else happens, but we still have fun together. The tours we’ve been on have been really fun and the shows have been really great too.

What are some inspirations that you’ve had for the album Goodness Gracious?

Musically, there were a few albums I was listening to when I started writing and recording that had their influence. There’s an album by Talk Talk called Spirit of Eden that was really big. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is another one and The Velvet Underground, a self-titled one they put out. Not the Velvet Underground & Nico one—the one that came out a bit later. They got me thinking about how to do things in a more stripped-back way. Pushing everything to the front and pushing the effects back. There’s a tonne of other stuff I listened to as well. They’re sort of darker albums, but I listened to a lot of bright synth-y stuff from the ‘80s and sort of country-ish stuff from the ‘70s, and a lot of more recent music.

Would you be able to talk about the album artwork?

That’s a photo that my dad took when my family was on holidays before I was born. It’s a photo of a lighthouse in a place called Yamba in New South Wales. I think it’s near Byron Bay. So, there’s three little people standing next to the lighthouse and that’s my mum, my older brother and sister … as soon as I saw it I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s such a beautiful photo,’ and I knew straight away, even though half the album hadn’t been written yet, that’s going to be the cover.

Your previous album’s been described as a headphone listening experience. How would you describe this one?

I wanted this one to be one where you put it on some speakers on a stereo or something, sit back on the couch and take it in. I’m sitting in my loungeroom now and that’s sort of the setup I’ve got here. A record player and some speakers facing the couch, you could just put it on and let it fill up the room a bit more, rather than having it swimming around in headphones. Ultimately, you’d like it to be both. But if anyone’s listening to it at all, I’m happy. I’m not going to dictate that too much.

What’s in store for the future of Sunbeam?

We’re doing this tour until early October, then hopefully there’d be more live shows coming after that. I’ve just moved house and set up a new studio, so I’m keen to start spending some time in there, work on the third album and have that come out sooner rather than later.


Catch Sunbeam Sound Machine on the ‘Goodnes Gracious’ album tour at Mojos on August 17.