The Goon Sax have only been in America for a short while, but they’ve already done pretty solid research into the country’s pizza options. They tried deep dish in Chicago (“The cheese was underneath the sauce!” remarks drummer Riley Jones incredulously) and went to a representative New York establishment as well, literally called “Best Pizza.” “They made a strong argument,” guitarist James Harrison offers in review.
It’s all new for the indie-pop trio, who are visiting the U.S. for the first time on tour when Billboard speaks to them back in June. The band originally hails from Brisbane, Australia — home of ’70s punk legends The Saints, as well as ’80s alternative greats The Go-Betweens, whose co-founder Robert Forster also happens to be the father of Goon Sax bassist Louis Forster. They’ve made it to the States on the strength of their debut album, 2016’s Up to Anything, which earned rave reviews and the attention of elder statesmen like Iggy Pop thanks to its charmingly direct songwriting, unpretentious arrangements and infectious energy.
Of course, the group didn’t have much of a choice but to be direct and unpretentious with Up to Anything, considering they were teenagers at the time of recording, unskilled musicians that had only recently formed as a group. (Jones had learned to play the drums just months earlier.) The album sounds like the kind of album you and your high school friends might have made over a long, lazy weekend — if you and your friends happened to be extraordinarily gifted songwriters with whip-smart pop instincts and an affinity for ’80s lo-fi, anyway.
“On the first record, we didn’t even know if it was going to come out,” Harrison explains of their debut’s humble beginnings. “We thought we just might keep it for ourselves, and we wanted it to sound like we sounded live. So we didn’t put much thought into some things.”
The Goon Sax are putting more thought into second album We’re Not Talking, out Friday (Sept. 14). The songs are more ornately produced, more varied in tone and tempo and more confident in general. “We had three totally different versions of each song,” Harrison explains of the additional effort behind Talking. “We definitely rehearsed a lot more, because before that, we just played those songs as they were one way, and they didn’t change a lot. Then we just recorded them the way we played them live. I think we just tried more stuff [this time].”
That “more stuff” also includes the first lead vocals for Jones, who sang backup throughout Up to Anything and now takes the mic solo for the lovely acoustic Talking ballad “Strange Light,” while splitting the main vocal with Forster on the delicate mid-tempo numbers “Losing Myself” and “Til the End.” “The first album, it was terrifying,” Jones explains of her first dalliances into singing. “Like, every time we were practicing I would go into the other room with the microphone and practice because I was so afraid of singing. But now I don’t care at all.”
The group’s egalitarian approach to lead-singer duties, as well as their Yo La Tengo-like tendency to swap instruments from song to song, gives The Goon Sax an unusually democratic feeling — something increasingly rare in an era when bands tend to be top-down operations primarily meant to articulate one frontperson’s artistic vision. “It’s nice that the band can be anything, and that it’s fluid in its shape, rather than a rigid structure,” says Forster. “It’s nice not to get too stuck in a role.”
But while the trio has reached new level of self-assuredness on their sophomore set, they remain by their own admission a long ways away from Rush levels of instrumental proficiency. Crackling lead single “She Knows” is their densest and most finely crafted pop song yet, featuring layers of guitar, a cowbell-led drum shuffle and screeching violin on the chorus. Yet Forster says it was a challenge to record for the group simply “because it changed a lot, and it was really fast.” When they play live at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory in June, the unexpected drama of a broken guitar string causes an extended break in their opening set, which the band gamely vamps over.
For fans of The Goon Sax, though, they probably wouldn’t want it any other way. Much of the band’s charm remains in their sense of barely contained shambolic DIY purposefulness, as well as the inherent young-adult awkwardness of being perpetually unsure of whether you’re trying too hard or not trying nearly hard enough. Asked if the benchmarks the group has checked off with their unexpectedly successful debut album has resulted in an overall greater sense of confidence or an increased level of anxiety, Harrison responds unflinchingly, “Increased anxiety and insecurity, definitely.” Ironically, the answer comes as something of a relief — it’s tough to picture what a cocky Goon Sax would even look or sound like.
Much like its predecessor, We’re Not Talking is already attracting universally glowing notices, even if you’re unlikely to hear highlights of its indie- and retro-leaning sensibilities on the radio anytime soon. That doesn’t mean The Goon Sax are completely removed from the pop world, however: They cite smash hits by both Camila Cabello (“I really like the one that goes ‘Havana, ooh na na,'” says Forster) and Portugal. The Man (“The one that goes ‘I keep my hands to myself’? It goes off!” raves Jones) as recent favorites. But the current pick among the group is Drake’s “God’s Plan.” “Imagine if I never met the broskis,” Harrison quotes, nodding in deep contemplation alongside his bandmates.