Sunbeam Sound Machine has burst onto the Melbourne psych scene with unmistakably sharp pop songwriting layered with glowing production. Indeed, Sunbeam Sound Machine is a musical endeavour masterminded by Nick Sowersby.
On a sunny afternoon, I met up with Nick on the bustling Smith St in Collingwood to discuss his music over some cold and creamy Pabst Blue Ribbons.
Nick’s musical path started squarely with his parents. Always encouraged to learn musical instruments, he started taking piano lessons with his siblings when he was young. At age 11, he started to learn the guitar and by his own admission, ‘that’s when things really kicked off musically’.
Nick took an avid ear to his parents’ record collection. Lou Reed’s Transformer was constantly spinning. Other favourites included Talking Heads, New Order and Paul Kelly. Nick took a distinctive liking to crafty songwriting and such an influence is a key feature in his music today.
It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he discovered the more immediately obvious psych influences of My Bloody Valentine, Tame Impala and Deerhunter, as well as a significant amount of electronic music that influenced his production skills.
The essence of Sunbeam Sound Machine started when Nick took a trip overseas when he was 20 years old. Unsure of his future in music, Nick took a sabbatical away from playing music for a few months. During his time away, he discovered countless new influences and sounds.
‘The combination of not playing and discovering new music really made me want to pursue it further,’ Nick said, ‘and pursue it further not just with the amount of time I put in but by how I treat it and how I approach it.’
Nick started recording relentlessly at home, taking various different sounds and layering them over each other. He also tried to record proper songs with diverse styles of production, such as doing a 60’s retro pop song or a groovy soul song.
‘I didn’t have any intention to release them and send them to labels, I just wanted to make them. It was around the same time a couple of friends, who are now in the band, convinced me to play them live.’
Nick recorded two EP’s and released them on SoundCloud under the name Albuquerque Freak Out. Soon those EP’s found their way to premier indie label Remote Control Records, who quickly signed him to their roster.
‘Once I knew it was coming out and people would hear it, I was like ‘I’m not going to call this Albuquerque Freak Out’’
‘So I went with something not as stupid.’
The concept of dealing with a record label was a wholly new experience for Nick.
‘The first time I went in there, I had these movie expectations of like ‘Oh they’re going make me do things I don’t want to do’, but they’ve been the complete opposite.’
‘I thought when they picked up the EP’s they would want to release the first one and then release the second one in a year. But they were like we to release these at the same time and you can start working on an album…which I hadn’t even thought about at the time.’
Nick quickly went to work on his debut record Wonderer. For the record, Remote Control put him in touch with Stu Mackenzie, the brainchild behind the explosive psych outfit King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Mackenzie mixed Wonderer, but Nick was able to take away much more learning points than just his production skills.
‘It’s his work ethic mainly. Obviously with their output, but he was on tour in America when he was mixing the album. I would send him stuff and he would send it back 5 hours later. Whether he was driving from one city to another or they had a day off. It would be early in the morning sometimes where he was.’
‘He just loves working and you can’t force that. You just have to love it. It was really inspiring to see someone who’s totally normal and nice and he’s got this amazing band off the ground and there’s no pretence about it’
‘It’s good to let yourself be surprised by what other people think of your work. I like being surprised with whatever comes out, even with my own music.’
It’s been almost 4 years since the first two EP’s were released. Now Nick is currently busy working away on his second album while he completing a degree in Sound Production.
‘I’m now more discerning with my tastes. If a song goes on an album, I don’t want to have a dud song. Not even an ‘oh that’s pretty good’, you want to stand behind every song.’
With his second album, Nick admitted he ‘never knows how done it is’, quoting it about somewhere between 35-85% finished.
‘I guess it’s closer to the end, though. I’m trying to give myself a deadline to run out of time. You can go at it forever.’
On his previous works, Nick explored themes of nostalgia, youth and personal exploration. For his next release, there will be a set of different themes, although he’s unsure how they will fully reveal themselves.
‘Lyrics are a big thing for me. I agonise over them a little bit,’ Nick said, ‘I try and treat recording as a very personal thing that I do, and when it’s done, I show it to everyone.’
Nevertheless, Nick conceded he surprises even himself with how deep he can get within the writing process.
‘When you’re in that mind frame and you look back on it, you’re like ‘oh that’s so depressing, I don’t actually feel that’ that’s just what words came to me that fit that melody,’ Nick laughs, ‘Like ‘oh wow, that’s a real whinge.’’
Recently, a new model of band composition has come onto the scene where one principal songwriter and performer drives the recordings and then there is more of a traditional ‘band’ of multiple musicians for live performances. Such stalwarts of this model include Tame Impala, Mac Demarco, Methyl Ethel and Sunbeam Sound Machine, among many others.
‘I think part of the popularity is technology driven. Being able to do it on your laptop at home,’ Nick said.
‘The reason I like doing it is cause I always have strong ideas about where songs can go. And I like trying out random things to see where they go. If you’re paying for a studio that costs money and if you have other people in your band, you don’t want them sitting around to see how everything sounds backwards or something.’
‘So I like working at my own pace and if I have the idea for the song, I can just do it, rather than asking someone else to do it for me.’
For live performances, Sunbeam Sound Machine comprises of 5 performers, including Nick.
‘Guys in my band play all around Melbourne, in bands such as POPPONGENE and 808’s and Greatest Hits. My drummer plays in like 5 bands.’
‘I’d like to do a bit more than that. I would really like to play live and not be the front man, it would be a nice change. It would be cool to play bass in a band. I would like to be that guy with his back to the crowd and no one would care. Would be a good mix.’
When reading about Sunbeam Sound Machine, a frequent comparison is Perth outfit Tame Impala. Such a constant comparison, I thought, even to such a decorated band, must be quite draining
‘I don’t mind it, I love Tame Impala. He’s a big influence. In terms of my material, it overlooks a lot of other influences that are just as prevalent. But it seems every psych band these days gets compared to Tame Impala.’
‘I look at other bands that get compared to Tame Impala and compare that to my music and we don’t sound similar at all, it’s just a blanket statement that threads us all together.’
‘Sometimes I think it’s lazy, sometimes it’s apt, sometimes I just don’t care.’
Another word that is constantly used to describe Sunbeam Sound Machine is ‘trippy’; an adjective that has obvious references to psychedelic drugs, and thereby a requisite to take them when listening to such music. It’s a term that bothers Nick more than any comparison to other bands.
‘It feels as if they’re listening to just the production rather than the songs themselves. So yeah if you listen to production it is pretty trippy, but there is songwriting in there that ties everything together’
‘I’m not trying to do production to make a weird sound, mess with people and make you green out or whatever. It’s just trying to make something that affects me emotionally. But ‘trippy’ makes it sound like I’m trying to do it more mentally’
‘If people enjoy taking drugs and listening to my music, then that’s cool for them. There’s nothing wrong with trippy music. But I don’t want it to be that it’s something you have to be stoned for to enjoy. That’s not my idea of good music.’
‘I’ve done that experimental reverb-drenched thing, and now I want to try something else. Maybe it will still sound trippy. Maybe what sounds normal to me sounds trippy to other people.’
‘Maybe it is true. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s time I woke up to the facts.’ Nick laughs.
Sunbeam Sound Machine’s next performance will be at Shady Cottage Festival in Trentham East.
‘I really like these small festivals; they are super communal and intimate. We haven’t played a festival in ages so I’m really excited.’
‘I would be into people just lying on the grass listening to my music. A lot of bands are really into making people dance, but if you do what you want to do, I’m cool with that.’
And is there anything special that we can expect for Sunbeam’s Shady performance?
‘One of my mates said to me the show rocks a bit more live and I can get behind that. It has a bit of energy behind it, rocks a bit faster.’
‘It’s still trippy with my phaser pedals as well.’
Alex Capper, once affectionally called by Ross & John of 3AW as the '7 foot fucker', loves the Essendon Football Club, stalking reddit and dabbing. He thinks he can speak French, but he can't.