Diving into the Great Blue
Despite being dubbed a dream pop band, the debut LP from Australia’s Geowulf, has not-so hidden depths under its big blue, shimmering surface.
The track "Hideaway" is tinged with surfy, sugary sweet, '60s-backing-girl style vocals, the intro to "Get You" feels less California and more Caribbean, and the disco/synth pop of "Drink Too Much" – lamenting the nights when a few too many get you into trouble, inspired by one particularly heavy night when singer Star Kendrick lived in Sweden – shows this duo are far more than a one-trick pony.
Guitars were always going to form the backbone of their output, though. "We always knew we wanted to make guitar pop,” says Kendrick, one half of the band. “Really beautiful, lush sounding guitars - I think that's where the dream pop sound comes from. It's not like we set out saying, 'Let's make it dreamy', we just ended up writing hazy melodies and using guitar."
This comes from a lifetime surrounded by music like Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and Bob Dylan; Kendrick's parents – back in Australia – were both musicians. Her dad was in a rock n roll band in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now he works solo on reggae music, while her mum was a singer in a rock n roll band. Looking at the band’s Instagram shots and music videos, the aesthetic reflects this influence: retro chic – feather boas, leather jackets, '70s trousers, big shades – but with none of the irony or knowingness of the ‘hypebeast’ generation – these two really mean it.
Kendrick talks about the experience of being a music lover without feeling the pressure to pretend she’s forever seeking out new material, or that she doesn’t listen to music when she’s writing. "Each track we had time to think about where we wanted it to go, and whatever we were being influenced by at the time sort of came out in the tracks," she says. "But I'm bad – I'm the sort of person who listens to the same stuff on repeat, over and over for years and years."
For her, the bands always working their way back onto that repeat list are Mazzy Star, Beach House, Bob Dylan, and Explosions in the Sky. "I saw them, it was outrageous,” she says, recalling an Explosions in the Sky show at Brixton in 2016. “I was right at the front and so excited, and it almost got too emotional and too overwhelming. I should have prepared mentally for it! It was pretty teary."
It’s not surprising that someone like Kendrick would have this reaction to a band she loves – she’s so clearly someone who feels music and words before she even knows them. "I've always written poetry,” she says. “A lot of my family is creative, so I've always felt the freedom to do stuff like that. Up to a point you're always writing, then you take certain experiences and turn them into songs. A lot of heartache too."
"I remember having this moment of 'I don't know really know what it all means, but I appreciate what's here', and I guess that was the ocean, which sounds really cheesy" - Star Kendrick
It’s not just personal heartache you’ll find on their debut Great Big Blue – there are far bigger, over arching, themes too. "Saltwater", for example, unpicks Kendrick's thoughts on religion and the universe as a whole. "It's quite existential,” she explains. “My parents were musicians, big hippies, while my grandma – who brought up my sister and I for a while – was in the church, so there were always big spiritual questions like, 'what is the meaning of life?' and 'why are we here?' and always thinking in a really big scale. Maybe it was a bit too existential.
‘"All my family's spiritual, whether it's Buddhism or Christianity," she goes on. "I remember having this moment of 'I don't know really know what it all means, but I appreciate what's here', and I guess that was the ocean, which sounds really cheesy."
Despite worrying it might be a little cheesy, Kendrick thinks music is the perfect art form or medium through which to explore these ideas and unpick these questions. "That's something you find when you go to church, or the place of worship for many religions, the central thing is music - it's a big thing,” she says. “That's when people connect and feel things. You see that carry through into life."
Connecting with a wider existence – whatever that might mean – is just part of the picture of this LP for Kendrick. Connecting with herself is another part of that.
"It's been absolutely therapeutic,” she says. “I think the writing process and being creative in any way is cathartic, it helps you process things. I have a lot of emotional energy sometimes, and it's a good way to get it out.”
This catharsis is something she might leave for the next album, though: "I feel like this album’s been quite raw, which was a fantastic thing to experience – allowing myself to be vulnerable and raw – but I think it will be nice going into album two deciding how much you…want to share, and working that out. I was quite young when I was writing this, and gave it all out.”
Some relationships may have broken down over the three years it’s taken to make Great Big Blue, but the one between Kendrick and her Geowulf co-founder – and old childhood friend – Toma ("Tom") Banjanin is stronger than ever. The two grew up in a small coastal town near Brisbane in Australia but had been separated for a few years before writing together and living together as mates in London. Banjanin (pictured below) has remained in the city for the last five years, while Kendrick has lived a nomadic life of sorts, flitting between Sweden, Australia, and Germany (Berlin) in between before settling in London, only to be uprooted again due to Visa issues. The day we meet she hears she has been granted eight months to remain; this may seem not seem long but Geowulf have created a whole album under far harder conditions.
The Great Big Blue alluded to in the LP's title was a real ocean during its making. "I would fly over – I was living in Sweden, and then Berlin for a while – I would fly over for a weekend and try and do four or five tracks,” recalls Kendrick. “Then meanwhile, on my own back in Berlin or Sweden, I would try lots of ideas." For Kendrick, writing and making music is a relatively new experience. She only began penning songs around two-and-a-half years ago, just before Geowulf came into being.
“I didn’t even know how to structure a song properly, for me it was plucking on a guitar, trying out weird effects on Logic and stuff – I had no idea,” she laughs. “Then Tom would tell me about how you have a chorus and a verse…before that I didn’t even repeat some things, I would just sing for five whole minutes or something."
Kendrick and Banjanin's approach sounds a little like their heroes Mazzy Star, where the legendary Hope Sandoval covered lyrics and vocals while guitarist Dave Roback took care of melodies. It also sounds like it was a great, almost childlike experience for Kendrick, writing the album.
"It was great having the space on my own to try stuff out. I hadn't done much song writing ever,” she says, remembering the times back in Berlin or Sweden, alone and free to experiment. “It was really exciting figuring this out, and I was like 'Fuck, why haven’t I done this before? It was so much fun and so easy – not 'easy' as in easy to master, but I had my own little set up with my mic and stuff...it was no effort."
Recording the album, sessions were a pretty far cry from the Brisbane coastline of Geowulf’s childhood, taking place at a studio in East London. "It was pretty crazy. We'd start at ten in the morning and finish at like four the next morning,” Kendrick recalls. “A lot of it was pretty technical so I'd be sat there and they'd say 'Which snare? This snare or that snare?' and I'd be like, 'Hmmm....'" She laughs. "Am I the worst person for thinking they sound exactly the same? While Tom's saying 'Nah man, I think that one needs blah, blah, blah.'"
Growing up together means the two often think in similar ways – "We're always in sync with who we like musically, we normally think along the same lines.” – but also that there’s no issue when they don’t see eye-to-eye. Kendrick says of Banjanin: "He might just be like, 'That's lame,' but because we're such old friends we don't have to tiptoe around each other's feelings. Being able to be honest is really important. I fully trust Tom with the musical direction, I think that's why it works. Our process."
The way she talks easily about not fully understanding the ins and outs of a recoding studio, speaks to the comfortable nature of their partnership. Kendrick's able to joke about this – she knows where her own strengths lie – as Geowulf is a partnership as well as a friendship.
"I remember when we first met with our producer, I said 'I don’t know how I want the music to sound but I know how I want it to feel'" - Star Kendrick
For some, this partnership is already filed away under the term 'dream pop'. Kendrick has mixed feelings about this. "You never kind of want to be pigeon-holed which I suppose that's what that could be,” she says. “but if we were going to be 'labelled' anything I guess that's what I would say we are. Everything is dreamy and hazy, so it makes sense. But we didn’t set out with that intention, to make 'dream pop'.
So, there was no pressure to make a dream pop record because people had already started talking about them as a dream pop band? "That's interesting,” says Kendrick. “But I don't think so no. I remember when we first met with our producer, I said 'I don’t know how I want the music to sound but I know how I want it to feel'. I always knew how I wanted it to feel. Like happy melancholy, nostalgic and emotive but not too heavy."
She laughs and starts singing Vitamin C's "Graduation (Friends Forever)" – showing how she sees the funny side of someone so young being nostalgic like that – but has turned it into an artistic advantage. "I knew how I felt when I heard certain songs,” says Kendrick. “And I kind of wanted to replicate that in an album."
Coming at music with feeling – rather than specific, technical aims means that each track is loaded with emotion. For Kendrick, there’s one in particular that resonates. "All the tracks meant something at the time,” she says, “but the song that I love the most is 'Won't Look Back' – it feels like a personal anthem to me. I can be a little bit....my personality can be a little bit...retrospective? I live a little too much in the past, and recently I've been thinking progress is about moving forward. It's hard though."
She sings on her own personal anthem: “Oh, I run the fight / This time, I'm too tight / You're the horse before the car to find my broken heart / Finally found your bottom line / You've always changed your mind / Found some peace in your parade / Can't you let me walk away? I won't look back”
And this determination not to spend too much time“looking back” is something deeper than just enjoying the sounds, aesthetic or fashion of another era. "It can be lots of things,” explains Kendrick. “It can be about my family, my parents, getting stuck into why things happen the way they did, trying to work it out I suppose, if you don't have closure to certain things. You're trying to process things. I think it's natural to always look back but I want to find that balance. Is this healthy hindsight or indulgence that's going to drag me back into old shit that would be better left alone?"
"The biggest thing is if someone can connect to it – and it doesn’t have to be in the same way as me – if it can make someone feel anything at all, then that's great." - Star Kendrick
She says that the track helps her refocus and get back on that healthier track, but also that it's great fun to play live. Evoking some sort of emotion – whether that’s ‘deep and meaningful’ or simply aesthetically – then that track, and the entire album, have done what Kendrick wishes they could: "The biggest thing is if someone can connect to it – and it doesn’t have to be in the same way as me – if it can make someone feel anything at all, then that's great."
The two don’t plan on waiting around for feedback on that though. Kendrick says they will start writing again soon, hoping to release a new track in the next few months and then start work on the second album. With the itchy-feet and enthusiasm of true music fans though, Geowulf’s next LP will feel and sound very different to the one they’ve just put out. "This album’s taken so long, we’ve been working on it for almost three years, so I think we're all a bit older,” explains Kendrick.
“We've got different tastes and different things we’re into. Things will be interesting, Obviously there will be some fundamental similarities but we’ll also evolve. Lately I've been feeling a bit more inclined towards disco stuff…."