SKUNKHOUR: Blazing Around Oz & Parts of the Sun
SKUNKHOUR have a new single out and a forthcoming EP on the way. To celebrate they’re touring Australia. 2SER’s PARIS put some questions to the band’s singer AYA LARKIN.
If you got out amongst Sydney’s thriving, late-night live-music scene during the ’90s, chances are you have at least one great memory of seeing Skunkhour at some point. From festival stages and Bondi pubs, to sweaty inner-city clubs, their performances often came at you like an amphetamine rush. Maybe, like me, you remember an infamous night in the early ’90s upstairs at Redfern’s South Sydney Leagues Club (renamed King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut for the gig) when the band were booked to support British vibesters Galliano. Signed to Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label, Galliano were not only still shaking off their association with Acid Jazz (the UK label and misnamed music genre that also courted Skunkhour) but together with their local support and a souped-up sound system, they were similarly shaking the venue’s light-fittings so heavily that the publican ordered the beer-swillers downstairs to evacuate for fear the ceiling was about to collapse. Also remembered from that same night in the midst of the first floor audience, was a short peroxide-blonde chap decked out in elbow-length red industrial rubber-gloves, who was brazenly dealing mind altering substances from a packed carry-case. Doubling as a makeshift platform, the case would be mounted between dispensations so he could see over the mass of bobbing heads.
It’s almost 30 years since that night in Redfern and Skunkhour are not only back touring Australia, but brandishing an EP of freshly written songs, including Blue their first new single in 20-something years. The new EP and tour is therefore far from an exercise in nostalgia. Still, when 2SER asks singer Aya Larkin for his own particularly strong memory from the bands’ halcyon days, Aya suggests some shows they played at a venue below Bayswater Road around the corner from The Strip. 2SER remembers those shows as well. Kicking off at around 2am, they were heaving, sweaty affairs showcasing an edgy Skunkhour in peak form.
“There were a couple of gigs at a place called the Tom Tom Club, Kings Cross… ” recalls Aya, confirming our evocations. “Not the biggest gigs we would play by a long shot, but such a palpable fervour running through the jam packed crowd of several hundred people in a low ceilinged dark [basement].”
Bristling with energy, Skunkhour’s sound was rooted in funk, but with nods to Sydney’s rare-groove collector scene and the nascent Australian hip hop sound that was yet to find support at Triple J. MC Del’s conscious hip hop rhymes coupled with the spiky slap-bass playing of Dean Sutherland leant proceedings a kind of urgent unpredictability that was tamed only by singer Aya’s soulful melodies and the sometimes jazzy licks of Warwick Scott’s guitar.
Amazingly, those Kings Cross gigs were staged “only months after we’d come together as the unit who’d go on to record,” remembers Aya. “Such joy in the crowd. The music was markedly different to what had been happening in the city/country up to that time and we were all communing, the crowds and the bands. An energy propelling us forward, into some new times.”
It was after those gigs that Skunkhour recorded their debut self-titled album. Spawning underground classics like Back To Basics, Pullatickin, Booty Full and Do You Like It (“don’t you want to smoke it”), the album’s cover image of a timepiece cradled by crudely painted human fingers was ubiquitous around Sydney at the time. The cover seemed to leap at you from everywhere. From the messy piles littering coffee tables in most Darlinghust group houses (where it jostled for realestate amongst that week’s free street press rags, roll-up papers and the night’s bottles and cans), to the racks of record shops. Unlike 2023, back in 1993 when the album was released, you could count at least 20 independent record shops in a 2km radius of Oxford Street’s lower end alone.
“It’s a whole new dynamic isn’t it?” remarks Aya, when asked to comment on the tectonic shift in the music landscape and what it’s like releasing a record in 2023 compared to 1993. For starters, some present-day bands don’t even provide fans with the option of purchasing a digital copy of their latest single, let alone some kind of physical product. Press releases now often arrive with no mention of when a single might be procurable, instead quoting how many plays it’s clocked up on streaming services.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about the streaming-centric music consumption of this age,” admits Aya. “I indulge myself in being able to access all kinds of things immediately, and the ability to easily share discoveries with friends incoming/outgoing. However Spotify are paying a pittance to actual creators, owners of the recordings. It’s akin to the old “major label as onerous bank advance” days. We work within the present dynamic as best we can. Vinyl is in our plans, but the lead time is pretty solid, and we are yet to get around to it. Other aspects are taking priority around mixing, releasing, promoting and organising the tour, although we are keen to get it in the works. So, yes, it will happen. Love vinyl, nothing like placing the record on the turntable, holding the cover and having a look at it in your hands is there?”
After Skunkhour released their self-titled debut in 1993, quick on its heels came 1994’s gold-selling album Feed – with it’s plaintive single Up To Our Necks In It – followed by Chin-Chin (1997) and an album called The Go (2001). Without going into all the frustrations, it’s safe to say by the time 2001’s The Go hit shelves as a CD album (it was the dominant medium of the time) major label machinations played a major part in the band’s decision to call it their final album. Soon after, Skunkhour had basically called it quits. In the ensuing years there have been some successful reunion shows and tours (including 2014’s BluesFest appearance and a much-loved 2016 show at the Metro Theatre in Sydney), but new single Blue and an upcoming EP entitled Parts Of The Sun has fans excited that Skunkhour are well and truly back this time.
In many ways, new single Blue sounds like classic Skunkhour, which will no doubt please those very same fans. But what’s behind the title and the lyrics? “Blue” is a colour that conjures up images of Australia’s expansive skies and the surf at Bondi Beach, which was the site of the old Vibes On A Summer’s Day festival from a time when Skunkhour were THE band to see around town. Yet it’s also a word that some will associate with melancholy, as in “feeling blue”.
“It’s interesting that you mention… its multiple representations,” says Aya. “When the chorus melody, and chord changes formed (coupled with the feel of the synth part) it conjured up recollections of our youth. The phrase “all night in blue” had dropped into my head before Del and I had even articulated that. We then expanded on that kind of nostalgic feeling for all the crazy indefinable emotions of teenage days. The longing to be seen, heard or accepted. Feeling so alone, feeling so part of a tribe at times. Beautiful mystical blue nights of adventure, blue sadness as you wrestle with reconciling things in your head. The want to transform, to break free. Go out, attempt to be cool, get lit, fall in love. All these feelings and desires that you’re trying to navigate and are experiencing for the first time.”
So can people expect more of the same from the upcoming EP?
“There’s considerable diversity across the EP, but each track still resonates as being Skunkhour tracks,” ensures Aya. “When you think about it, we covered a lot of ground across the four albums and the couple of EPs that we put out back in the day. We bring in a fair few styles as influences, and the four songs on this release are an example of that range. Each track has its own distinct inputs and character and without overtly setting out to, we’ve kind of re-explored our history and influences. There’s one called Wait A Sec that Del drove, and brought through so well. It’s a down tempo, live band hip hop [tune] where his lyrics [are retelling] his journey as he was leaving the band back after the second album, and how he processed/came through that and the perspective he now holds looking back at it. It’s also got some killer sax on it from Matt Ottignon.”
The last time Skunhour toured was in 2018, pre-pandemic.
“Over the last six to seven years of sporadic touring… people had been asking about the potential of new material. The logistics of bringing ourselves together to do it seemed prohibitive, especially with guitarist Warwick living in Adelaide. Something shifted in our thinking at the beginning of summer as last year’s lockdown lifted, as we thought about bringing something new to a potential 2022 tour. We found a date in late January where we could get together for a few days in Sydney, knowing that if no music came out of it that we were really into, we’d tour without it. We shared songs in the lead up to get the juices flowing, stuff we were enjoying, influences, like you would when you first form a band, talking about what you’re into to the find common ground. We got into the room to jam and Dean (bass) had a few grooves. We felt stuff out. A couple resonated and we went from there. Then other stuff bubbled up. [We] walked out after three day sessions with four to five strong candidates. Then the work began to form them into fully formed songs before recording in April. Although some of the songs have been reworked between then and now, as initial iterations didn’t quite hit the mark, others were completed reasonably quickly.”
It’s no easy feat regrouping the original members of a band after so many decades of not writing together. An even bigger ask to come up with new music that satisfies not only all the members, but fans as well.
“I personally feel very lucky to be able to come back and have a lash with collaborators who bring so much, and with whom I share history,” says Aya. “Especially at this stage of my life. This could be a one-off or we may have another round of creation. It’s been challenging doing this with the bandwidth it demands with all the other aspects of life that are our responsibilities. Back in 1993 we were so earnest, took it so seriously, but were in some ways oblivious to the sheer luck of coalescing in a band that people gave half a damn about. But we poured our young little naive hearts into it.”
After so many years, there’s also the issue of people having changed, matured and reassessed their priorities. So the unique mix of personalities, ambitions and egos that initially give a band lift-off when everyone is 20-something, might be a whole new paradigm in your 50s. Amongst Skunkhour’s ranks are also two sets of brothers, further complicating the delicate balancing act of keeping a band together. All this got 2SER wondering: how the hell do you do it?
“There’s a strong bond that binds,” admits Aya, “but it’s also a test to put up with the aspects of our personalities that can trigger friction. We all have traits that can grate when you’re in close creative contact. There’s still residual shorthand we share that helps and this time around we’ve made a pact to be more honest than we might have been in the past. Having said that, there are tangled dynamics and external pressures that factor in to make it a little complex. It’s far from totally harmonious, and there have been flare-ups.”
Flare-ups? A band blazing? Sounds like those memorable and damn fine Kings X Skunkhour gigs of old.
BLUE is out now. Skunkhour kick off their Australia tour to support it this week with the first show in Byron Bay on September 3rd. Sydneysiders have the opportunity to catch the band at the Metro Theatre on October 15th. Full tour dates below.
Skunkhour Parts Of The Sun Australian Tour Dates
• Saturday 3rd September @ The Northern, Byron Bay
• Friday 16th September @ The Gov, Adelaide
• Saturday 17th September @ The Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne
• Sunday 18th September @ The Espy, St Kilda
• Saturday 1st October @ The Princess Theatre, Brisbane
• Sunday 2nd October @ Caloundra Music Festival, Sunshine Coast
• Saturday 15th October @ Metro Theatre, Sydney
• Friday 21st October @ The River, Margaret River
• Saturday 22nd October @ Freo.Social, Fremantle