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Sydney’s Owen Penglis is the main songwriter for Straight Arrows, and along with Mikey Young, he’s responsible for recording a disproportionate amount of the great records coming out of Australia (Royal Headache, Thigh Master, etc.). After a brief hiatus, Straight Arrows are about to record their third full length in early 2018. A new single on Spacecase Records is available now. TB: You started out as a drummer, correct?
Owen: I was a drummer. I started playing drums in 1995 when I was twelve. I grew up in a far northern suburb of Sydney, right on the border of where the suburbs turn to bushland. It was a place called Asquith. It was a classic suburban situation: not much was happening. There were three op shops—in America, you guys call them thrift stores—along the highway. I’d go with my friends and dig for weird stuff. I’d look for records and old instruments. In high school, I’d get together with my buddies and see what kind of music we could come up with. It was just to pass the time. There was a great record store in Hornsby I’d go to. I’d skip classes and go there. I didn’t have any money, but all of their CDs and records were used. I’d grab heaps of stuff and bring it over to the turntable. I’d educate myself. TB: We were the last generation to rely entirely on record stores and fanzines as a source for uncovering music.
Owen: I liked grabbing records and hearing what they sounded like for the first time. I was just going off what the covers looked like or anything I might have heard from someone. There was a lot of garbage. I remember getting into Sam the Sham because his records had cool covers. I listened to the Equals for the first time for the same reason. You never knew what you were going to pull out. Records back then were mysteries. TB: The worst thing about that time was buying a new record and finding out it was horrible. You didn’t have much money and wasting it was gut-wrenching.
Owen: Absolutely. I had a job at a shitty call center. It would take a few hours of constant rejection on the phone to make up the cost of a bad record purchase. TB: Didn’t you know (Straight Arrows guitarist) Alex (Grigg) when you were both still really young?
Owen: I met Alex when I was seventeen. He grew up about twenty minutes away from me. I met him through another friend who was trying to put a band together. The band didn’t work out, but it was how I met Alex. TB: Was The Holy Soul the first consequential band you were in?
Owen: That was the first group I was in that did something. We left Sydney. I was drumming for them. I went to the university. The other guys in the band were the only likeminded people at the school. When I got to university, I found out it wasn’t what I envisioned it being. I thought I was going to meet lots of interesting, countercultural people. TB: Visions of running into Syd Barrett.
Owen: Yeah. You don’t meet those people. You meet people who want high-paying jobs. It was very disappointing. The Holy Soul started out as a straight-up garage band. It changed after that. TB: Was the stylistic change the reason you and the band parted ways?
Owen: I think it had more to with me being wilder. I was a bit younger than the rest of the band. They were more adult than me. TB: Didn’t (Straight Arrows drummer) Adam get stabbed leaving a Holy Soul show?
Owen: Right. It was after a Holy Soul and Red Riders show. Red Riders was Alex’s old band. We didn’t know Adam at the time, but he came to the show. As Adam was leaving, a mentally ill guy started hassling him. Adam tried to brush him off. But then the guy punched him—or so he thought. Adam then realized he’d been stabbed right in the stomach. He kept the jacket he had gotten stabbed in for a long time.
TB: Is Adam still doing architecture?
Owen: Yeah. I went to his work for the first time last week to pick him up for practice. He works at a high-end architecture firm. He’s a proper professional. TB: I’m glad someone we know turned out to be a success.
Owen: Someone has to buy the beers for practice. TB: Straight Arrows formed in 2006.
Owen: That sounds right. The Holy Soul show Adam got stabbed at took place around 2003. Adam lived with a friend of mine. I met him during the period when I decided to put Straight Arrows together. I was visiting my friend—Adam’s housemate—and she showed me around his place. I saw the drumkit in Adam’s room. I said to my friend, “Your housemate has a drumkit. Can he play?” She said he could. So, I asked Adam, “Hey, do you want to drum for this band I’m starting?” Adam said, “Yeah, I could be into that.” I told him, “Cool. Let’s do it.” Adam then said, “Well, you know I really can’t play the drums.” I said, “Oh, fuck. That’s all right. I’ll teach you.” TB: How did you meet Angie (Garrick)?
Owen: Angie had been playing in bands for ages. I first met her when she was seventeen. We were all kids. We all formed bands together because we were the same age. The older guys were almost all dickheads playing whatever music was fashionable at the time. Back then it was post-rock. Their bands were horrible and boring. So, we banded together in punk bands. TB: Would those bands eventually be eclipsed by the success of Eddy Current Suppression Ring?
Owen: Nah. Eddy Current wasn’t a big success until after 'Primary Colours' (2008), and even then it took some time for them to catch on. I think Eddy Current became massive after they stopped playing. What really cleared all those post-rock bands out was meth. Meth hit Sydney hard. What’s strange is that all those people seemed a lot older than us at the time. They really weren’t. I wish I could say Eddy Current took all those bands out, but it was drugs. TB: Your first single (“Can’t Count”) is so blown out. It left an impression on people, but I remember you telling me a local radio station thought they got a defective copy of it.
Owen: That was a common reaction with that style of music from that period. I tried to do music while at university, but I hated the sound of everything. It was the early 2000s and all the digital recordings coming out sounded horrible. Everyone was convinced digital recording was the future; it was so easy to edit. Nevertheless, the recordings were terrible. I ended up leaving university and became a mechanic. I decided that I hated what was happening to music. I worked on old Lambrettas and Vespas for a year and a half, but then the shop closed down. Afterwards, I borrowed a four-track and decided that was the way to record. Fuck the computer. I still do a lot of analog recording on 8-track. TB: That’s great. A lot of people have given up on that process—even those that were recording that way in the 1990s.
Owen: If I thought the computer sounded as good, it wouldn’t be an issue for me. TB: Recording on tape is a different mindset. You’ve got a finite number of tracks and you need to map everything out.
Owen: Yeah. You’ve got to decide at the beginning what’s going where. There’s a lot more planning at the initial stage. I believe in keeping everything simple and direct. TB: A large percentage of the Australian records I’ve bought over the past decade have been recorded and mixed by either you or Mikey Young.
Owen: I guess everyone else got caught up in the digital wackiness. There are plenty of guys around, but we may have recorded some of the albums that blew up a bit more. I feel lucky in that sense. TB: Jumping back to Straight Arrows, your initial shows were at gay bar in Sydney called the Newtown Hotel.
Owen: Our friend organized a monthly residency there. The Newtown is now a horribly gentrified asshole bar. But back in 2007, it was a really seedy, great gay bar. Drag shows would be held downstairs, upstairs were for more intimate encounters. Our friend went in there and asked if she could book some bands. They told her the Newtown was for gay-only events. She replied, “I love muff.” They told her she could book the upstairs then. (laughs) That was great. We were coming from this subversive mindset. The people who ran the place were happy that we were bringing heaps of young people into the bar. They didn’t give a shit about checking IDs. It was a great, young local crew coming in. Smoking weed at the venue, spending money at the bar. The guys who ran the place asked us if we wanted some videos to play in the background. I asked them what they had. They replied, “Well, how hardcore do you want it?” We selected the videos that stopped short of full-on sex. Long, drawn-out foreplay scenes—and then right when it’s about to kickoff, everyone is clothed again. TB: That was Straight Arrows’ home base for a while then?
Owen: We did five months there. We launched our first single upstairs at the Newtown Hotel. It was all DIY shows. Us and our friend Rachel (Baxter). We had to borrow a PA. If we couldn’t get one, we’d just sing through our amps. TB: You were doing Juvenile Records at the time.
Owen: That’s right. Once I did the first Straight Arrows single, it sounded so different from what other people were releasing that likeminded bands around town hit me up. I started recording them. A lot of that had to do with the first single. TB: The 2009 tour you went on with Eddy Current and Thee Oh Sees was a turning point.
Owen: Yeah. We had done the first single. Our second one was a split on a French label with the Creteens (2008). Then we were on a The World’s Lousy with Ideas comp. Harry Howes, who does Almost Ready Records, he got Aarght! Records—Richard Stanley, Mikey Young, Per Bystrom and Stacky—to help put together that comp. There were four bands on it and we got a track, “Magic Scepter,” which was weird and different sounding from our other songs. TB: That one reappeared on 'It’s Happening' (2010).
Owen: We rerecorded it for the LP. We got on Thee Oh Sees and Eddy Current Suppression Ring tour because another band had dropped out at the last minute. For some reason, we started sounding all right together. We were touring properly. Eddy Current was very encouraging. I was sitting in the backseat with John Dwyer and he offered to put out a Straight Arrows/Oh Sees split single. I never ended up giving him the track, which would have been nice. TB: That would have been a smart career move.
Owen: Hindsight is a hell of a thing.
TB: That’s your M.O. I think Alex told me that you introduced half the tracks on 'It’s Happenin'g to the band the day you went in to record it.
Owen: That’s not totally true. That’s what Al thinks. I had been writing all of these songs for the record. It was hard to get those guys motivated to practice. I’m not the best at handling a band, so I wasn’t introducing all the new material at practice. Those songs had been already been written, so when we finally got ready to record I just said, “Fuck it. We’re finally doing these.” That approach worked for that record. I wanted It’s Happening to sound like a mid-to-late ‘60s American private-press recording of an unskilled band. TB: You accomplished that with 'It’s Happening'. It does have that Index feel to it.
Owen: That’s a hell of a compliment! Thanks. TB: We met in Los Angeles in 2011 right after 'It’s Happening' came out. It’ll sound strange to Americans, but you wrote a grant and submitted it to an Australian arts council; they awarded you money to tour the United States.
Owen: I started it late as well. It was three days of sitting up at the computer, punching this thing out. I got a lot of help from the rest of the band. Everyone would come over and write a few paragraphs. I had other friends who helped with formatting it. The Eddy Current guys told me about a lady you could pay to write the grant for you, which I found out was a whole industry. I hit her up and she said, “Oh, you waited until too late. But if you call tomorrow, I’ll sort you through a lot of it.” She was really nice. Adam had a friend who used to work for the grant people—we took her out for coffee and she gave us a few tips. We did all of this in the last two days before the deadline. We worked really hard to get that money. TB: No doubt. That was the tour where you played Goner Fest Eight.
Owen: That’s the one. We landed the show (at Goner Fest) and just said, “Fuck it. Let’s tour the US. We don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’ll figure it out.” TB: What were you doing between that tour and 'Rising' (2014)? Are you still making buttons for bands?
Owen: Oh, yeah. I’m still doing that. You’ve got to do a lot of different things if you don’t want to work a real job. We did a couple of singles—one on HoZac (“Never Enough”) and one on Goodbye Boozy (“All the Time”). We had played a lot, but then took a step back. I didn’t really knuckle down to make another record ('Rising') for a couple of years. I honestly can’t tell you why. Part of it was just organizing all the tours. It takes it out of you. Hustling to make a living does as well. TB: How did the Green Bananas single come together?
Owen: That one started as a stupid dance move I made up waiting between bands at a show, with a DJ playing really average, new hip-hop and RnB. I came home, made up a song to go with this new dance move, and the next day smashed out the recording to 4-track. I sat on it for a few years until a mate of mine, Simon at Agitated in the UK, he had hassled me for a while until I let him do it. He even let me put a dance-move instruction sheet in it too. Strangely enough, earlier this year I was doing some mastering work for the ABC, which is pretty much the Australian BBC, and the mate who I was working for there heard about the Ape and asked if I'd be into doing it as a kids’ record for their inhouse label. I said, “Why not?” I wrote and recorded a few more songs in three weeks and sent them through. So, there's a digital release of a kids mini-album thing out there too. TB: Can you talk about recording 'Rising'?
Owen: With that record—Simon Keeler who runs Forte Distribution in the UK—he bought a couple copies of 'It’s Happening' off me and later emailed me. He wrote that he really liked the record and asked to put it out in England (on Agitated Records). He wanted to put out our next record, provided we could tour off the back of it. So, we organized that with Simon. We ended up touring Europe. I started cutting 'Rising' at my house. 'It’s Happening' was recorded at a friend’s house who had an Otari tape machine. I ended up buying that Otari 8-track recorder off of him, so Rising was recorded on the same machine that we did 'It’s Happening' on. We recorded half the record in my lounge room, and then I ended up getting a studio space—I’m talking with you outside of it right now. We worked on 'Rising' for about six to nine months. 'It’s Happening' was all pretty much live. 'Risin'g was done in bits and pieces. The next record, that we’re going to record in a month (January 2018), we’re going to record it live. And I’m not going to be recording it. TB: Who’s going to record it?
Owen: I’ve got a mate named Nick Franklin who works at a likeminded studio in town. I’ve gotten him to engineer some of the higher-budget records I’ve produced, when we’ve had the funds to go to a fancy studio. I’m still going to be involved, or course, but Nick’s recording it. TB: Angie is no longer playing bass, right? Is she focusing more on her solo recordings (which are excellent)?
Owen: Yeah. Angie’s doing her solo stuff now. We’ve got Will (Harley) in the band now. After our last tour of America, I think Angie was over it. TB: Spacecase is releasing your next 45. Do you have a label lined up for the next LP?
Owen: I’m going to look for one when the record is completed. I’ve been making everyone in the band practice like crazy for this album. It’s sounding really cool. I think there are a number of singles on there. It’s sounding very pop. I tried to do that with the first Straight Arrows single, but I didn’t have the skills to make it. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and that’s why the first single came out the way it did. The new record is going to be pop but fucked up sounding. That’s what you want. END INTERVIEW.
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