Why Sugar Army ditched drums for computers
Sugar Army are a band who should have enjoyed an endearing fan base throughout their career, which now spans over 10 years. Unfortunately, things have simply not panned out that way.
The Perth group’s first album, The Parallels Amongst Ourselves, set the group up to be the next big thing. The music scored heaps of radio and TV play, the band toured the country and played several summer festival slots, and they also scored a slew of nominations at the West Australian Music Awards following the album’s release in 2009, including ‘Most Popular Act’, ‘Best Male Vocalist’, and more.
The band’s second record Summertime Heavy wasn’t released until September 2012 and was hindered by the departure of bass player Ian Berney. By that stage, it seemed the band’s primary focus was on producing music and making the occasional stage appearance.
Fast forward to 2016, and it has certainly been one of the busiest years Sugar Army has had since their early success – the group played a bunch of sold out shows earlier this year supporting WA prog-rock legends Karnivool, and have released their third studio album, Beast.
Sugar Army have a number of shows to play before the end of the year as well, playing at this weekend’s WAM Saturday Spectacular, RTRFM’s Courtyard club a couple of weeks later, and supporting Regurgitator at the end of the month.
“The bands we’re playing with for the Saturday Spectacular I’m pretty keen to see,” vocalist Pat McLaughlin chimes. “I know Hideous Sun Demon and Verge Collection are on the rise. Mathas has been awesome for ages. I don’t see enough live music, to be honest, I need to get out more.”
This renewed level of activity for Sugar Army has seen the band nominated for Live Act of the Year (WA) at the inaugural National Live Music Awards, to be announced later this month.
“Yeah, it’s great [to be nominated],” McLaughlin says. “It’s pretty out of the blue, to be honest. We don’t play live very often these days, but we’ve always felt pretty confident playing live and have played a lot over the years – we’ve been a band for a long time. It’s something that comes very naturally to us, so yeah, it’s really nice!”
I think it’s different to anything Sugar Army’s ever done.
Beast saw the band take a big shift in direction from their previous work, choosing to adopt computer programs and electronic producing over jamming out in a rehearsal space. Apart from knowing that they wanted to do something different, they weren’t sure what it was going to be until they started experimenting.
The band had to forego the idea of recording live, instead pinning down exactly how they needed everything to sound before heading into the studio.
“A lot of the newer sounds was just whatever someone was excited about, you just have to follow what excites you,” McLaughlin explains. “The cool thing is Todd [Honey, guitar] and Jamie [Sher, vocals] are always open to new things and trying new ways of doing things.
“It’s never a case of anything being forced, it’s just one of them will come in go ‘Hey, I’ve been mucking around with this, what do you reckon?’ and usually it’s awesome, so from that point on, the other will respond to what they’re doing, and I’ll come in with the vocals.
“When we started making the album, we wanted to do something different, that was the only thing we wanted, and that started with Jamie making samples from the computer and samples of himself, and then cutting it up and approaching it how an electronic producer would – layering sounds, layering snares and kicking drums.
“Todd was using Ableton and figuring out how to do that, which can do a bunch of interesting things. It changes the way you conventionally do something.”
It certainly made for a different process in creating the live show, first and foremost being that each band member had to become multi-talented in managing different instruments and equipment.
“In terms of the live set up, there’s four of us, but there’s essentially three. I play a bit of guitar, but with a lot of the album having synth elements, we’ve got Ben [Pooley] who plays bass, but also plays half the songs on synth, so it’s just depending on the song.
“Then Jamie’s also triggering a lot of things – he’s got drums, and then there were a lot of different things on the album coming in and out that he will trigger during the show. It’s changed a bit, but I think the album’s a lot more livelier when we play it, as opposed to the way it was recorded – it was a lot more clinical, and purposefully so. When we play it live, it’s a lot more raucous.
“Before the launch we rehearsed a lot, so that was a real teething process, but in saying that it’s kind of fun as well. You record the album, and the album wasn’t recorded live or anything, so we had to essentially go and learn how to play the album, and that in itself is a form of writing because you don’t play it exactly how you record it.
“I guess the good thing is, after being in a band for some time, you get better at doing that. We can identify when something’s not working earlier, and not labour on it. We’re not afraid to change it anymore.”
Identity can be a concept many bands struggle with after being together for a long period of time and releasing several albums. Sugar Army threw that idea out the window, and will continue to do so in future.
“With this record, we cared less about what Sugar Army should be. In the past, it was like, we know we do this well, but we want to go into a new area, whereas with this album, we didn’t really care – it was just a matter of what’s exciting.
“Even now, I can look at the album and think it’s quite diverse, but someone on the outside might think, ‘Nah, it sounds like a group of songs that Sugar Army’s written.’ I think it’s different to anything Sugar Army’s ever done. But that wasn’t a conscious thing aesthetically, it was more like, after 11 years, what do we do to keep things fresh?
“We’ll go deeper down that wormhole. Any future writing we do…,” McLaughlin ponders for a moment, “I think what we enjoy is making something we wouldn’t think would work, work. I’ve realised, as painful as that can be, that’s what we’ve always done.
“We couldn’t just write a song in an hour, we’re not one of those bands. For us, if we did it in an hour, we’d be like, ‘Oh, that was too easy,’ you know? You can write great songs in a short amount of time, but I think it’s just the dynamic of the three of us – I think after doing it for a while we realise how the dynamic works, and we know what we’re all looking for. Now, it’s more a case of ‘how far can we take it?'”
The National Live Music Awards take place around the country on November 29.